Groundwater litigation can be an expensive affair

A ribbon-cutting for the Nipomo Community Services District’s supplemental water project was held in 2015. Water quality remains a key issue for board directors serving South County community services districts.
A ribbon-cutting for the Nipomo Community Services District’s supplemental water project was held in 2015. Water quality remains a key issue for board directors serving South County community services districts. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of groundwater litigation, look no further than the latest development in the legal battle over rights to the Santa Maria basin.

This years-long case cost millions of dollars to litigate; drew in dozens of innocent homeowners and small farmers in San Luis Obispo County who were sued only because they had water wells on their property; and in some cases forced public agencies to either raise water rates or put off projects to pay legal bills.

After all that, some of the parties are now going back to court because they claim requirements of the settlement were never met and, as a result, the basin is still in jeopardy.

We bring this up not to find fault with the court system or with the judge assigned to the case, but to point out that litigation is an unwieldy method — to put it mildly — of deciding water rights. Even when a decision is made, the terms aren’t necessarily carried out to everyone’s satisfaction.

Given all that, it’s hard for us to comprehend why some landowners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have chosen to litigate.

For those not familiar with the case, it’s a quiet title lawsuit filed by Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery and other basin property owners who say they’re seeking to protect their water rights.

Here’s how Cindy Steinbeck described the process in a Viewpoint published in The Tribune, almost exactly one year ago:

“Adjudication is not a mysterious legal process pitting neighbor against neighbor or landowner against municipalities. Adjudication occurs when California groundwater users ask the courts to settle groundwater rights consistent with maintaining the longterm sustainability of the basin.”

Based on what’s happened in the Santa Maria case, we have to disagree.

That lawsuit — the Santa Maria Valley Water Conservation District v. the city of Santa Maria — was filed in 1997. It expanded to draw in so many parties that it came to be half-jokingly known as the Santa Maria Water Conservation District v. the world.

The complicated case eventually led to a court judgment in 2008, but seven years later, some parties are back in court. Specifically, the cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Pismo Beach (collectively known as the Northern Cities) allege the Nipomo Community Services District did not make a good-faith effort to import 2,500 acre-feet of water from the city of Santa Maria, as ordered by the settlement.

The Nipomo district — which was dealt a blow when property owners refused to pay for a pipeline between Santa Maria and Nipomo — is importing an estimated 650 acre-feet of water per year. But the full amount — 2,500 acre-feet — won’t be available until around 2025, when the district can complete its pipeline project.

That, the Northern Cities say, is a problem. They allege the basin is in worse shape than ever and, because of overpumping, the groundwater gradient has changed. They claim water is now flowing to the Nipomo Mesa area and away from the Northern Cities, depriving them of their share.

Their motion asks the judge to halt all development in the area until the Nipomo Community Services District has completed its pipeline project and can import the 2,500 acre-feet.

And it isn’t just the Community Services District that’s potentially on the hook. The Northern Cities are asking the court to order other entities, including SLO County, Golden State Water, Phillips 66 and Woodland Mutual Water Co., to develop and fund additional water projects to ensure the future health of the basin.

A mess? You bet.

It’s not something we would wish on residents and property owners in the Paso Robles basin — or any other basin, for that matter.

What’s more, it’s unnecessary. The case is likely to take years to decide and by that time, there will be some form of groundwater management agency overseeing the basin, per requirements of state law.

Bottom line: Litigation is a complicated, expensive and imperfect way to decide water rights. It should be a last resort.

In this case, there are far better solutions on the horizon — including formation of a local water management district that would be overseen by a locally elected board of directors.

We can only hope the Paso Robles groundwater litigation dries up before property owners find themselves in a decades-long battle that may end up solving nothing.