Santa Clara County (September 13, 2022) – On Monday, in a decision certified for publication, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District holds that the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB or State Board) exceeded its enforcement authority when issuing curtailment notices in 2015 to certain pre-1914 water right holders, including the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID).
In its ruling, the court finds that Water Code Section 1052(a) does not provide the State Board authority to “curtail an entire class of pre-1914 appropriative water rights solely on the basis that the Board believes that there will be insufficient water to serve all pre-1914 appropriative rights.” The ruling continues, “For these reasons, we agree with the trial court’s conclusion that the Board lacked authority under section 1052(a) to issue the 2015 curtailment notices to respondents.”
The case is related to a 2015 enforcement action commenced by the 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 the SWRCB sought a $5 million fine. On the third day of the administrative hearing before the SWRCB Hearing Team, BBID’s legal team successfully argued that the evidence submitted by the SWRCB Prosecution Team failed to meet its burden of proof, and the SWRCB Hearing Team granted BBID’s motion for judgment dismissing the enforcement action.
After the dismissal of the enforcement action, BBID resumed the 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 under Water Code §1052 to take enforcement action against pre-1914 water right holders based on a general lack of available water under their priority of right. 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 prior to enforcement.
“This ruling helps safeguard senior water rights in California,” said acting BBID General Manager Kelley Geyer. “It confirms that the authority of the State Water Resources Control Board is limited to that which the Legislature granted it, nothing more. Senior water rights are the foundations of urban and rural communities throughout the state,” Geyer continued. “They are also the backbone of reliable agricultural water deliveries that support cultivating our food supply – in California, the nation, and the world. Byron-Bethany Irrigation District believes protecting its pre-1914 senior water right on behalf of the multi-generational family growers and ranchers we serve is its primary responsibility, as well as providing the community of Mountain House with its principal water supply.”