The Fourth Appellate Court of California heard the Abatti parties vs. Imperial Irrigation lawsuit, Friday, June 12. The appeal was generated after Imperial County Superior Court Judge Brooks Anderholt ruled in Abatti’s favor of repealing the Equitable Distribution Plan in August 2017, which could ration agricultural water users by historical and straight-line measurements to deal with the longest drought in modern California history.
After IID appealed the case, Friends of the Court briefs for the district were filed by the local Imperial Valley Coalition for Fair Sharing of Water, started by Holtville resident Wally Leimgruber, the California State Water Board, and San Joaquin Tributaries Authorities.
Filing briefs to maintain Anderholt’s decision were the Imperial County Farm Bureau, Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association, and Imperial Valley Water, according to the Appellate Court’s website.
The court was comprised of Patricia Benke, acting presiding justice, Cynthia Aaron, and Joan Irion.
Benke allowed thirty minutes for each sides’ arguments with the judges breaking in frequently to ask questions. The case was done online, both attorneys and the three judges recording from their perspective offices. Most of the hearing went smoothly, with a few instances of losing connection or two justices speaking simultaneously.
Justice Benke mentioned several times through the court hearing this was a most important case for the Valley, the State, and water districts in general.
Attorney Jennifer Meeker, attorney for the district, argued that farmers do not exist apart from other types of water users, and the District Law does not tell IID how to balance competing needs to determine what is equitable among those needs.
In times of shortage, there is no rule or criteria suggesting that IID should provide water to agribusiness enterprises before all others. There is no statute, regulation, or principle of fairness that suggests the water is to be provided to farmers and denied to municipal areas where residences, businesses, recreation, and a whole host of non-agricultural uses converge.
The District Law gives the IID Board broad discretion to determine what is equitable and to equitably apportion water among all beneficial uses, and Meeker argued that farmers do not have priority.
Justice Aaron asked if farmers came last in apportionment in the EDP.
Meeker responded the EDP is made up of all types of members, municipal, residents, industrial, and farmers.
“At what point is this a ‘taking,’” Benke asked. “For the EDP to be implemented there doesn’t have to be a (water) shortage, it is not based on historical use — that is a lot of power for the board.”
“The farmers have a right to continued distribution of water,” Meeker responded.
Michael Abatti’s attorney, Cheryl Orr, told the court, “Abatti never claimed he had ownership to sell (the water), and he agrees the IID has ownership. The claim is Abatti has water right appurtenant to his land and can water when he wants when there is no shortage. EDP cut water use by 50 percent of their crops.”
Justice Irion asked, “So once farmers have watered (their crops) and finished, then all else can have what is left over?”
The justices now will review the arguments and are expected to rule in the next few months.