Appeals court rules in Santa Maria Valley groundwater suit

The 6th District Court of Appeal recently issued a ruling in long-running litigation over rights to groundwater in the Santa Maria Valley basin, and attorneys for public agencies in southern San Luis Obispo County are calling it a victory even though two groups of landowners prevailed on a few points.

The court’s ruling upheld the majority of the trial court’s earlier decision, including a settlement between public water suppliers and landowners.

However, the court determined that the landowners are entitled to a judgment declaring their overlying rights to groundwater in the Nipomo Mesa and Santa Maria Valley areas of the basin. The appellate court directed the trial court to modify its judgment.

Doing so will preserve the landowners’ rights in the future, according to the ruling filed Nov. 21. However, that decision won’t impact public water agencies, since their pumping rights were laid out in the settlement agreement, an attorney for the agencies said.

The litigation initially begin in 1997 to determine who has priority rights to pump groundwater from the Santa Maria basin — those who own the land above or the public agencies and private water companies that serve homes and businesses.

The majority of landowners entered into a settlement, but about 70 of the 1,000 parties involved in the suit refused to sign the agreement in 2005. Two groups of landowners then appealed.

The settlement agreement split the groundwater basin -- which stretches from Orcutt to Pismo Beach -- into three areas, each with separate terms on how they are to be managed.

“We are thrilled with the outcome,” said James Markman of Richards, Watson & Gershon, who has represented the Nipomo Community Services District throughout the litigation.

The court also rejected the appellants’ challenges to the northern cities’ water rights, said Henry Weinstock of Nossaman LLP. The northern cities include Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Pismo Beach and the Oceano Community Services District.

In doing so, the court upheld 100 percent of their superior right to use about 7,300 acre-feet of water per year.

Also as part of the original stipulation agreement, the Nipomo services district was required to bring in supplemental water by buying some from Santa Maria. That stipulation was not changed by the appellate court ruling.