The Imperial County agricultural community finally heard from the Fourth Court of Appeals about the landmark water case that could rewrite water laws across the State deviating from historical precedents. The Court ruled the Imperial Irrigation District is the sole owner of appropriative water rights to Colorado River water in the Imperial Valley, reversing a previous ruling.
“This is a historic decision by the Court of Appeals whose ruling affirms IID’s position that it (IID) is the water rights holder for Imperial Valley and that there is no privileged class of water users; and that, furthermore, agricultural water users have the same rights to service that all other water users do,” Norma S. Galindo, IID board president said in a formal press release.
The case began in 2013 after IID implemented an equitable distribution plan (EDP) apportioning water for each category of users, irrigators, municipal, and residential. El Centro farmer Michael Abatti went to court to stop the EDP on grounds that as a farmer, he possessed water rights entitling him to sufficient water to meet his irrigation needs and the EDP deprived him of that right. Superior Judge Brooks Anderholt ruled in Abatti’s favor, forcing the IID to repeal the EDP as a means to conserve water during the present drought.
Abatti's position was that farmers are entitled to receive the amounts of water that they have historically used to irrigate their crops. The District contended that the farmers possess a right to water service, but not to specific amounts of water. The District argued it is required to distribute water equitably to all users, not just to farmers; and that the 2013 EDP allowed the District to do so, while fulfilling the District's other obligations, such as conservation.
The Court concluded the farmers within the District possess an equitable and beneficial interest in the District's water rights, which is tied to their lands, and that the interest consists of a right to water service. The Court said even if some landowners in the Imperial Valley held private water rights at some time in the past, the District has been the sole owner of water rights to Colorado River water in the Imperial Valley since 1923 when it bought out all other local water companies. Since then, all water users possess only a right to service in some form.
For the affirmation, the court decided against the IID that Judge Anderholt did not exceed its authority by “overruling a different judge’s (Judge Diana Altamirano) ruling in the same case.”
“The IV Coalition effort was to overturn the flawed decision by the Honorable Judge Brooks Anderholt, and to make sure that Imperial Irrigation District continues to deliver water to all beneficiaries within the IID service area,” said Wally Leimgruber, IV Coalition for the Fair Sharing of Water spokesperson. His organization also filed an amicus brief supporting IID.
The Court also affirmed the Superior Court’s ruling that the District abused its discretion in how it prioritized apportionment among the water users in the 2013 EDP.
The court ruled all parties shall bear their own costs on appeal.