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July 20, 2020  |  Written by Alyson E. Ackerman

Court of Appeal Holds That Imperial Irrigation District Landowners Only Have a Right to Water Service and Not an Individual Appurtenant Right to District Held Water Rights

Imperial Irrigation District (“IID” or “District”), which provides the only source of fresh water to California’s Imperial Valley, implemented an “equitable distribution plan” (EDP) to allocate its water entitlement amongst its users.  A local farmer, Abatti, challenged IID’s EDP, asserting that it unlawfully and inequitably stripped him of his water rights that entitled him to receive a certain quantity of water from the District.  Taking a narrow view of the District’s discretion and purposes, the Imperial Superior Court ruled in favor of Abatti, determining that IID abused its discretion in apportioning and allocating its water under the EDP, and that the farmers in IID own the equitable and beneficial interest in the District’s water rights, which is appurtenant to their land, while the District holds mere legal title to its water rights.  On appeal, the court held that the District’s water allocation methodology in the EDP was reasonable and not an abuse of discretion, and that Abatti and the other farmers in IID only hold an interest in, or right to, water service.

EDP’s Method of Water Apportionment

The uses of IID’s water entitlement are diverse, ranging from municipal, industrial, and environmental resource uses, to feed lots, dairies, fish farms, and agricultural farming.  All of the District’s water entitlement comes from the Colorado River.  IID developed the EPD in response to water shortages and settlements resolving long-standing water rights disputes between IID and both the government and other Southern California water providers.

The EDP apportioned IID’s water entitlement based upon the category of water user, allocating water first to non-agricultural water users, then all water remaining to agricultural farmers.  The EDP’s default method of apportionment was “straight line” apportionment, under which all agricultural fields were allocated the same quantity of water per acre.  Abatti asserted this method did not equitably distribute water because it treated all farmland as requiring the same quantity of water, without regard to a farm’s type of soil or the crops grown.  The trial court agreed, finding IID abused its discretion in adopting the EDP.  The court determined that “equitable” distribution requires a district to consider such variables as type of soil or crop, factors which are taken into account when apportioning based upon historic water usage.

On appeal, the court ruled IID’s method of apportionment under the EDP was reasonable. Although the EDP used straight line apportionment as the default method, it expressly provided other apportionment methods as well, such as historical use, soil type, and combinations thereof, which the District could change from year to year.  The EDP also allowed for “farm unit transfers,” where a farmer with more than one water account with more than one field could share the water apportioned to those fields among such fields, and an agricultural clearinghouse for transfers between farmers.  Both of these tools allowed farmers to buy and sell water as needed, avoiding waste, and ensuring water use flexibility.  The appellate court determined the District’s adoption of the EDP was reasonable in “all other respects,” save for its prioritization of water users.  The court found the prioritization not reasonable because the EDP lacked provisions allowing for modification of the priority and meaningful limitations on the users first served.  Nonetheless, the appellate court confirmed the scope of the District’s discretion regarding its water supply, stating that as long as the District treats the various categories of users equitably under a water distribution plan, consistent with their interests, the District’s purposes, and California water policy, IID is not required to apportion its water in any particular way.

Scope of Farmer Interest in IID’s Water Rights

On the issue of ownership of, and right to, water managed by IID, Abatti alleged that he, and the other District farmers, have vested appurtenant property rights in the District’s water rights, and that the EDP infringed on these appurtenant rights.  Abatti claimed that farmers were entitled to receive the quantities of water historically, reasonably, and beneficially used to irrigate their land, rights that were established by the farmers’ predecessors’ historical use, which then vested and have been heretofore preserved.  Ruling in favor of Abatti, the trial court determined the District’s water users own the equitable and beneficial interest in the District’s water rights, while the District holds mere legal title.

The appellate court, however, determined that Abatti’s aforementioned historical and reasonable use argument relied on authority applicable to appurtenant water rights, rights that he did not establish he, or any farmers, had in the first place.  Ruling in favor of IID, the court held that farmers within IID hold vested appurtenant rights, but those rights are for water service, not appurtenant water rights.  “[T]he farmers do not hold traditional appropriative rights entitling them to divert and use water other than as beneficial owners of the District’s rights.  That beneficial ownership [in the District’s rights] entitles them only to water service from the District.”  Moreover, while farmers possess such rights to water service, the court expressly stated that those rights neither entitle farmers to a certain quantity of water, nor limit the District’s authority to satisfy its other obligations.

Importantly, the appellate court’s opinion is limited, determining only the nature of the farmers’ interests in IID’s water rights and taking no position on the rights of other irrigation districts and their water users.

For more information on Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation District, or assistance regarding water rights and water service, please contact Alyson E. Ackerman at aackerman@somachlaw.com or Andrew M. Hitchings at ahitchings@somachlaw.com.

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