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February 22, 2018  |  Written by Somach Simmons & Dunn

Court Issues Decision Protecting Thousands of California Water Rights Holders

In a decision that reaffirms and solidifies the oldest water rights in California, the Santa Clara County Superior Court ruled on Wednesday, February 21, 2018, that the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) lacks jurisdiction to enforce priority of rights between pre-1914 and riparian water rights.

Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID), represented by Somach Simmons & Dunn, filed an action challenging unlawful curtailment notices issued by the SWRCB in June 2015 to pre-1914 water rights holders, including BBID.  The BBID action was coordinated with several similar actions filed by water agencies and irrigation districts throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin River and Delta watersheds.  Known as the California Water Curtailment Cases, the coordinated action is being heard by Judge Walsh of the Santa Clara County Superior Court.  In Wednesday’s decision, Judge Walsh also determined that the curtailment notices violated the due process rights of BBID and over 9,000 water rights holders affected by the 2015 curtailment notices because the SWRCB 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.

In 2016, BBID prevailed in a related administrative hearing before the SWRCB, which sought enforcement against the district for allegedly diverting water when none was available under its priority of right, and threatened a potential $5 million fine.  Attorneys for BBID and other accused water districts argued that careful analysis of the prosecution team’s evidence proved the SWRCB was ultimately incorrect.  The SWRCB granted BBID’s motion for judgment dismissing the ACL complaint, citing the prosecution team’s failure to prove its case.  The action before the Superior Court was filed by BBID before the administrative proceedings began.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court will now hear Phases Two and Three of the coordinated actions, including BBID’s takings claim.  BBID will pursue recovery of its substantial legal fees and other costs associated with the SWRCB’s enforcement action, totaling millions of dollars.

The full February 21, 2018 Statement of Decision is publicly available on the Santa Clara County Superior Court website and at this link.  For more information on this case, please contact Mike Vergara or Theresa Barfield at or, respectively.

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