In the CA 6th District Court of Appeal, the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID) is urging the court to uphold a landmark decision solidifying the oldest water rights in California. Attorneys on behalf of BBID responded to an appeal filed by the State Water Resources Control Board, saying in part:

The Legislature never provided the State Board with the authority it now seeks from this Court. That is, the Legislature did not authorize the State Board to use trespass under Section 1052 as a means to preclude (i.e., curtail) Senior Right holders from diverting water within the scope of their rights, regardless of times of water shortage or surplus. To the contrary, the Legislature has been careful not to extend the right to regulate Senior Rights to the State Board, consistent with the fact that Senior Rights pre- date the State Board’s existence and authority. In addition, no court has interpreted the State Board’s other statutory authority to allow for such curtailment. Through this appeal, though, the State Board asks this Court to legislate from the bench, expanding its authority to curtail Senior Right holders in a manner that the Legislature has repeatedly not granted through the various amendments to Section 1052.

The trial court accurately concluded that the State Board did not have authority to curtail Respondents’ diversions of water under their valid Senior Rights, and this Court should affirm the trial court’s judgments regarding the State Board’s jurisdiction under Section 1052.

Background: The ongoing case is related to a 2015 enforcement action brought by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) against BBID shortly after BBID sued the SWRCB over unlawful curtailment notices issued by the SWRCB to more than a thousand pre-1914 water rights holders, including BBID. Over BBID’s objection, the Santa Clara Court stayed BBID’s lawsuit pending completion of the administrative hearing of the SWRCB’s enforcement action.

The SWRCB’s enforcement action sought enforcement of the curtailment notices against BBID for diverting water when allegedly none was available under its priority of right, and seeking a $5 million fine. On the third day of the administrative hearing before the SWRCB, BBID’s legal team successfully argued that the evidence submitted by the SWRCB litigation team failed to meet its burden of proof, and the SWRCB hearing officer granted BBID’s motion for judgment dismissing the enforcement action.

After the dismissal of the enforcement action, BBID resumed its related lawsuit, and on April 3, 2018, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Brian Walsh issued his Statement of Decision holding, among other things, that the SWRCB lacks jurisdiction to enforce priority of rights between pre-1914 and riparian water rights. The Court’s ruling solidifies the oldest water rights in California. Judge Walsh also held that the curtailment notices violated BBID’s due process rights because they commanded immediate curtailment of water rights and threatened large fines without providing water right holders an opportunity to challenge the findings upon which the notices were based.