SLO County claims a victory in ongoing legal battle with landowners over water rights

A jury this week affirmed that public water suppliers in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have established rights to use underground water supplies consistent with historical practice even during times of shortage, San Luis Obispo County officials said in a news release.

The jury reached the verdict Sept. 24 after a month-long trial, finding that public water suppliers —including the county, the city of Paso Robles, Templeton Community Services District and San Miguel Community Services District — have established a “prescriptive right.”

The question arose from a quiet title lawsuit filed nearly five years ago by a group of landowners who argued that their overlying groundwater rights and right to continue pumping from the basin is equal or superior to the rights of the county and other governmental entities that also pump from the basin.

This is the third phase of legal issues in the case to be decided in court.

In the next phase of the case, a judge will likely determine how much water public water suppliers have a right to pump beyond a safe yield over and above the rights of the private landowners, according to county counsel Rita Neal.

Landowners led by Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles filed the suit in the midst of drought after the county had adopted emergency regulations that limited pumping. Ultimately, more than 200 landowners joined, including county Board of Supervisors chairman John Peschong.

The case is being heard in Santa Clara County Superior Court, where it was moved because of the court’s experience with complex water law.

Water users in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin are currently in negotiations to create a state-mandated plan to sustainably manage the groundwater, something that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires in basins that were determined to have been over pumped.

How this case will affect the SGMA process is unclear, and parties in the case disagree about the implications of the result of the case, Neal said.

“We are very gratified that the jury agreed that families and small businesses in our area have just as strong a claim on our shared groundwater supply as do agricultural interests,” Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said in a written statement. “Now all our join attention can turn to developing a plan that serves all and ensures a sustainble groundwater supply for future generations.”

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 16.

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