In a decision that increases the reliability of local water supplies for residents of cities in California, a state appellate court upheld a court-ordered groundwater management plan that ensures a water supply for a large portion of the Central Coast.
“The decision substantially strengthens the right of cities and public agencies to use groundwater for people in times of shortage,” said Eric Garner, water rights attorney at Best Best & Krieger LLP who represented Santa Maria in the case.
The opinion reached in City of Santa Maria v. Richard E. Adam, by the 6th District Court of Appeal in Santa Clara, was published, meaning it can be cited to by other courts.
Adam and other farmers and landowners filed the appeal in 2008 after a lower court upheld Santa Maria’s right to pump water from the local aquifer. The lower court also approved a court-supervised management plan guiding the future use of a groundwater basin that underlies 163,700 acres in northern Santa Barbara County and portions of San Luis Obispo County and is the principal source of water for thousands of residents and landowners.
While the construction of dams and reservoirs relieved the region’s historical water shortage, the parties were concerned that aging infrastructure and growing population would lead to shortages in the future. Thus, the plan also involved a method to pay for the ongoing maintenance and operation of Twitchell Reservoir, which sits on the Cuyama River.
Those filing the appeal refused to sign the agreement that identified and prioritized the water rights held by the hundreds of users of the groundwater basin. They claimed the cities and public agencies had very limited rights to the water in the Santa Maria Valley.
The appellate court, however, said the trial court acted within its discretion in approving the management plan hammered out by the City of Santa Maria and the other users of the groundwater basin.
“The court’s opinion provides a road map to adjudicate over-pumped basins and to do it faster and cheaper,” said Jeffrey Dunn, who argued the case before the appellate court for Santa Maria.
A key part of the ruling, Garner said, confirms that public agencies, which invest money and resources into building and maintaining infrastructure such as the Twitchell Reservoir or to import water from the State Water Project and deliver it to their residents, have rights to that water even after it seeps into an aquifer, such as when a resident waters their lawn.
In this case, the farmers wanted rights to that groundwater, Garner said.
“The majority of people in California live where the water isn’t. The court’s opinion means that agencies investing resources into bringing imported water to their regions now have more certainty in using and re-using that supply,” Garner said.
This case is also the first case where “prescriptive” water rights have actually been tried. It clarified an area of the law where cities or public agencies as well as farmers have been pumping from an aquifer that has been in overdraft for a long time.
“The court found that people have at least an equal right to crops in a water shortage condition” he said. Importantly, Garner said, the court “recognized that the city’s historical pumping can continue into the future and be protected during a shortage.”
The appellate opinion, reached Nov. 21, remanded back to the court for two minor clarifications.