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Found court has jurisdiction over groundwater storage
The California State Supreme Court delivered an important legal victory to the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD) and to district ratepayers when it rejected appeals by the Central Basin Municipal Water District (CBMWD), the cities of Downey, Signal Hill and Cerritos and Tesoro Oil Co. challenging the court's jurisdiction to rule on an important groundwater storage plan for the Central and West Coast groundwater basins.
"The California Supreme Court's decision is an important win for ratepayers throughout the region because it puts us back on track for the court to rule on the merits of the storage plan," said WRD Board President Albert Robles. "Unfortunately, these wasteful lawsuits have cost WRD and ratepayers time and money – 3 years in delays and millions of dollars in legal costs."
In May 2009, CBMWD, Tesoro Oil Co. and the three cities filed a suit opposing a 2-year state mediated groundwater storage plan created to tap into the 450,000 acre-ft of storage capacity for groundwater. By storing more groundwater, the region could dramatically reduce the need for expensive imported water and have supplies in during seasons with low rainfall. CBMWD is the region's designated provider of imported water.
In 2010, a trial court concluded that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. WRD and several other cities, (including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Lakewood, Torrance and Inglewood) and water companies appealed that determination to the Appellate Court which the court reversed, finding the trial court did have jurisdiction.
In February, Downey, Signal Hill, Cerritos and CBMWD escalated their legal battle by filing a petition for Supreme Court review, which was summarily denied. In rejecting the challenges, the Supreme Court affirmed decisions made by the Appellate Courts. Among other things, those decisions overturned lower court rulings and concluded that, contrary to the arguments of the challenging entities, the court:
1. Had jurisdiction over groundwater storage, including the allocation and governance of storage;
2. Had jurisdiction to authorize the transfer of water from one Basin to the other;
3. Had jurisdiction to appoint WRD as a member of the Watermaster body outlined in the petitions; and
4. That the provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act do not apply to the petitions to amend the Judgments.
The cases now return to the Superior Court for trial on their merits.
"Five million dollars in unnecessary legal costs later, we are back where we started three years ago," said Lakewood Public Works Director Jim Glancy. "The Supreme Court decision in the Central Basin case is an invitation to the litigant cities to stop throwing money down a legal rat hole and to join their colleagues in making the storage plan work for all groundwater pumpers. It is also an admonition to the Central Basin Municipal Water District to get out of the case altogether and to drop its costly, ill-conceived and now legally indefensible groundwater storage plan."
Long Beach Water Department General Manager Kevin Wattier said the Court's decision "represents a huge victory for the region and the state. Having the ability to store water in the few years when there is a surplus for use in the many years when we have drought is a way to reduce our reliance on imported water while assuring our water needs can be met.
"Two years ago," Wattier said, "more water flowed under the Golden Gate Bridge in one week than our region uses in an entire year. Had our storage framework been in place, we could have stored much of that water here for use now when state water supplies are low."
City of Torrance Public Works Director Rob Beste said the court's decision in the West Basin case reaffirmed the confidence the majority of West Basin pumpers had in the storage plan in the first place. "We never understood why Tesoro and Hillside would oppose a plan that was in their best interests to support," he said. "We hope the Supreme Court decision will encourage them to be more introspective and support the petition out of self-interest as well as for the region as a whole."
WRD General Manager said the Supreme Court decision was "very good news for the entire state. The Central and West Coast groundwater basins have the largest unused groundwater storage capacity in any urban area of California. The basins overlie an area that encompasses 43 cities and 10% of the state's population. Putting that capacity to beneficial use will help assure the future viability of our water supply needs for generations to come," Whitaker said.