Client Successes Oct 1, 2018

Groundwater Rights Jury Finds in Favor of Public Water Suppliers

BB&K Team Successfully Defends City in First-of-its-Kind Trial in California

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Best Best & Krieger LLP, representing the City of Paso Robles, successfully defended the City in a jury trial that found the water suppliers had acquired prescriptive groundwater rights to the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin during times of groundwater shortage conditions. A group of about 600 landowners, led by Steinbeck Vineyards, LLC, brought the 5-year-old suit seeking to claim quiet title to groundwater rights.
 
In what is believed to be the first jury trial over groundwater rights in California, a Santa Clara County Superior Court jury found on Sept. 24 that a group of public water suppliers in San Luis Obispo County had the right to pump groundwater from a large groundwater basin in San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties. The four-week trial pitted agricultural interests against public water suppliers during a time of extreme water tension due to drought and drought-like conditions in the State.
 
In addition to the City, the suit named San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, San Miguel Community Services District, Templeton Community Services District and Atascadero Mutual Water Company as defendants.
 
“We are pleased that the jury was able to understand the complex hydrogeology and legal issues in this important case,” said BB&K Partner Jeffrey Dunn. “At issue, was the ability of the City and the other public agencies to continue to provide a sustainable water supply to tens of thousands of persons and businesses in the Paso Robles area.”
 
“Groundwater is a precious resource in drought-prone California. This verdict protects the public water suppliers’ right to pump groundwater to supply its residents and businesses during times of shortages or when surface water is not available,” said BB&K Of Counsel Wendy Wang. “Reliability of water supply is critical to the health and safety of the residents in this community.  This verdict is consistent with the State’s policy that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water, to be followed by irrigation.”
 
“This case is very significant from a groundwater management perspective because it represents another failure by overlying landowners to exclude public water suppliers from pumping groundwater for the public benefit,” said BB&K Managing Partner Eric Garner. “Groundwater users should focus on cooperative groundwater management efforts, not litigation.”
 
This is only the third time in California that all the elements of prescriptive water rights were tried in court — the other two were Santa Maria and Antelope Valley matters, both involving BB&K as the lead counsel for the successful public agencies. It is also the first time since the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed in which there is a determination of water rights in a basin subject to SGMA management. The Paso Robles Basin is designated (along with 20 or so other basins) by the state Department of Water Resources as “critically overdrafted”  — meaning that it is in severe trouble and that its groundwater sustainability plan must be in place by 2020.
 
In addition to Jeff, Wendy and Eric, the BB&K team included Christopher Pisano and Patrick Skahan.
 
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