Achieving an Appellate Victory for Imperial Irrigation District

On July 16, 2020, California’s Fourth Appellate District Court issued a published decision in favor of firm client Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in a dispute between a farmer in the district and IID over IID’s rights to Colorado River water. The published opinion can be found at Michael Abatti, et al. v. Imperial Irrigation District (2020 S.O.S. 3585).

Facing the threat posed by the longest drought in a century for the Colorado River basin, IID adopted an Equitable Distribution Plan (“EDP”) to manage its Colorado River water supply—its sole source of water for the entire Imperial Valley—in accordance with IID’s duty under Water Code section 22252 to distribute water “equitably as determined by the board.” (Wat. Code, § 22252). The EDP set forth a plan for the apportionment of IID’s water as between all of its users within IID’s service area.

Local farmer Michael Abatti convinced the trial court that the farmers in the district, himself included, owned a constitutionally protected property right in IID’s water that entitled the farmers to a priority over all other users to receive the amounts of water that the farmers historically have used to irrigate their crops, and that IID’s Board’s adoption of the EDP was an abuse of the Board’s discretion.

Nossaman’s water rights team joined forces with the Firm's appellate team in the appeal of the trial court’s decision in favor of the farmer. After many years of briefing, and oral argument on June 12, 2020, the Court of Appeal adopted nearly all of the arguments advanced by Nossaman and unanimously issued a resounding victory for IID.

The core finding in the Court of Appeal’s 106-page decision, confirms that

“As an irrigation district, the District holds its water in trust for the benefit of its users, is responsible for managing the water supply for irrigation and other beneficial uses, and is empowered by California law to do so. District water users include municipal, industrial, and agricultural users, or farmers.” (Op., p. 3.)

Further to this core finding is the confirmation by the Court of Appeal, in accordance with fact and law, that

“the farmers within the District possess an equitable and beneficial interest in the District’s water rights, which is appurtenant to their lands, and that this interest consists of a right to water service; the District retains discretion to modify service consistent with its duties to manage and distribute water equitably for all categories of users served by the District.” (Op., pp. 4-5, emphasis added).

Importantly, the Court of Appeal confirmed, based on the history of water rights in the Imperial Valley and by the law governing irrigation districts, that IID is the sole owner of appropriative water rights to the Colorado River in the Imperial Valley, including all pre-1914 present perfected rights, and that its Board has broad discretion to apportion its water among all of its users. The Court of Appeal expressly did “not dictate the District’s future exercise of that discretion—including as to any action taken in response to this opinion, and reject the superior court’s attempt to do so.” (Op., p. 5.) The Court correctly noted instead that “[t]he District must treat all categories of users equitably under the plan, consistent with the interests of the users, the District's purposes, and California water policy. As long as the District satisfies these obligations, it is not required to carry out its apportionment in any particular manner, and the superior court erred to the extent that it directed the District to do so.” (Op., p. 50.)

Mr. Abatti petitioned the California Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court for review of the appellate decision. Both denied review.

Nossaman’s appellate and water rights experts are proud to work with IID to protect its water rights and statutory discretion to ensure the fair and equitable distribution of this natural resource in the Imperial Valley. This appellate victory is just one example of the unmatched experience that Nossaman attorneys provide to all of their clients, and highlights the breadth of knowledge and experience that Nossaman’s team of water experts has in areas ranging from water rights litigation and major groundwater adjudications, to the sale, lease or transfer of water rights, and provision of legal opinions to help document water right positions.

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