US Supreme Court directs IID to respond to Abatti's petition

EL CENTRO — A coalition of agricultural interests filed an Amicus Brief on Friday, April 23, with the US Supreme Court emphasizing the national importance of Imperial Valley agricultural property/water rights, according to the press release.

A group of local farmers — Don Barioni, Jr., Howard Elmore, Richard Elmore, Mike Morgan, and Doug Westmoreland — was joined by California Farm Bureau (CAFB), Imperial County Farm Bureau (ICFB), and Imperial Valley Water (IVH2O) in filing the brief which argues that the US Supreme Court should consider this matter because of the implications for property rights in the Imperial Valley as well as the federal water policy ramifications of the case. For example, this group pointed out that Imperial Valley produces 80 percent of the Nation’s winter vegetables and its diverse agriculture industry stimulates the local economy with over 11,000 jobs and as much as $3 billion each year.

The Clerk of the US Supreme Court directed IID to file a response to Abatti’s petition. IID General Counsel Frank Oswalt is previously quoted as stating an IID response to the Abatti petition for a hearing before the US Supreme Court was unnecessary. An April 21, IID press release on the matter quotes Oswalt as stating, “After a thorough review of Mr. Abatti’s petition, it was the unanimous conclusion of counsel that there is almost no possibility that the United States Supreme Court will grant the petition.” The Clerk’s request for a response indicates the court is indeed considering Abatti’s petition for a hearing. “As ratepayers and residents of Imperial Valley, our entire community deserves at least a response from the IID Board on such a serious matter related to water rights and the future of Imperial Valley. Having the US Supreme Court demand a response from the IID is an important step in having the Imperial Valley and its critical impact on national agriculture considered at this level,” said Katie Turner of Sutherland and Gerber who was hired by the groups to facilitate the filing of the brief.

For decades, IID and local industry interests argued the water allocated to the Imperial Valley from the Colorado River is appurtenant to the land. The California Appellate Court ruling in Abatti v IID compromises this long held position. In Abatti v IID, the IID Board of Directors contends IID owns the water rights and water users only have a right to service. Shockingly, the Appellate Court stated that all water rights are based on “policy and discretion” of the IID, rather than being rights of the people of Imperial Valley, including the farmers.

IVH2O Chairman Craig Elmore strongly disagrees with the Appellate Court ruling and supported IVH2O’s participation in an amicus brief outlining the various reasons why the Abatti petition for a hearing should be granted by the US Supreme Court. Elmore said, “IVH2O believes water is the most critical factor to our life in Imperial Valley and clarity on water being appurtenant to the land is essential to our viability. IVH2O, therefore, was pleased to join the California Farm Bureau, Imperial County Farm Bureau and other stakeholders in filing a brief with the US Supreme Court in support of Abatti's petition for a hearing regarding Imperial Valley's water rights.”

ICFB President Jeff Plourd understands the impacts this court case has on all Imperial Valley residents and the long-term effects this will have on the future of Imperial Valley, including the potential for diverse economic growth for all industries. “All residents, whether agricultural employees, government workers or small business owners should agree water in Imperial Valley is essential. This is what is at stake in this case. Are water rights in the Imperial Valley held on behalf of its landowners and residents, or can the IID simply just have the ‘discretion’ to prioritize, apportion and move the water in whichever way the IID wants? Could the IID Board, either those currently seated or a future, unknown board, just transfer all of our water to Los Angeles or San Diego if they need more general fund money,” Plourd said.

The US Supreme Court requested IID’s response no later than May 26, 2021. The court will decide shortly thereafter whether to grant review in this case.

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