State High Court Rejects Legal Challenges by Cities of Downey, Signal Hill and Cerritos, the Central Basin Municipal Water District and Tesoro Oil Company
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 and the cities of Downey, Signal Hill and Cerritos, Tesoro Oil Company challenging the courts 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, Central Basin Municipal Water District, Tesoro Oil Company and the three cities filed a suit opposing a 2-year state mediated groundwater storage plan created to tap into the 450,000 acre-feet 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. Central Basin Municipal Water District 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 Central Basin Municipal Water District 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:
- Had jurisdiction over groundwater storage, including the allocation and governance of storage;
- Had jurisdiction to authorize the transfer of water from one Basin to the other;
- Had jurisdiction to appoint WRD as a member of the Watermaster body outlined in the petitions; and
- 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 Robb Whitaker 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.
A proposed law designed to keep water bills from skyrocketing has passed a state Senate committee, but opponents vow to fight the measure they say is a “political power grab.”
Senate Bill 1386, authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would remove barriers to storing groundwater in the Central Basin and would allow for underground water reserves to protect against high rates in dry periods. Area cities and water agencies have been embroiled in legal battles over how and by whom the water should be stored.
“Without this bill, continued efforts by the Central Basin Municipal Water District will lead to more and more lawsuits, create greater and greater legal bills, and result in higher rates for our region,” said Lowenthal in a written statement following the committee vote.
“Enough is enough,” the senator added. “It’s time we move forward as a region, and I believe SB 1386 provides us with the path to resolution.”
The Finance Committee of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California has decided to recommend the Board
of Directors not increase the District’s replenishment assessment* (RA) for the fiscal year 2012-2013.
At its May 4, 2012 meeting, the Board of Directors will hold its 10th and final budget hearing and workshop, where it will make its final decision on the 2012-2013 replenishment assessment. The zero increase scenario has been a consideration since the first workshop of the series. These public meetings have been well attended by stakeholders, residents, local leaders, and community and environmental advocates.
The workshops have provided the public the opportunity to give direct and important feedback to help influence the budget process and shape the final budget.
“WRD has now held 9 consecutive public meetings to insure transparency, and we have heard from members of the public throughout the district,” said Finance Committee Chair and Board Treasurer Sergio Calderon. “We think our recommendation reflects a combination of thoughtful public input, belt tightening, and expert analysis that will insure water will continue to be safe, reliable and affordable for struggling ratepayers.”
The clock has started in an effort by a water district to cut off water supplies to Pico Rivera and four other area cities after the cities refused to pay a water assessment.
The Water Replenishment District on Monday made its case in Norwalk Superior Court to outlaw water pumping in Pico Rivera, Downey, Signal Hill, Bellflower and Downey, saying the rebel cities need to pay up while five other legal actions get worked out in a separate court.
Compliant cities in the area are going to end up suffering if the five cities don’t fork over what will add up to $8million in unpaid assessments by the end of this fiscal year, WRD officials said.
“They’re pumping water and not paying us,” said Ed Casey, a WRD attorney. “That’s not fair.”
The fate of Downey’s water supply now rests in the hands of a Superior Court judge.
Judge Raul Sahagun in Norwalk Court on Monday heard arguments in a lawsuit by the Water Replenishment District to stop Downey and four other cities from pumping drinking water.
He could hand down his decision any day.
For months, Downey, Signal Hill, Cerritos, Pico Rivera and Bellflower have refused to pay a $244-per-acre foot assessment for water they pumped from the area’s groundwater basin. An acre-foot is about enough water for a family for a year.
A state appellate court has ruled that a Superior Court judge has the power to consider a plan for water storage in the southeast area of Los Angeles County.
A regional water district, five cities and two water utilities in the southeast area in 2009 proposed a plan to allocate available underground water storage.
But Norwalk Superior Court Judge Holly Kendig in July 2010 ruled she didn’t have the power to consider the plan proposed by the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the cities of Lakewood, Los Angeles, Huntington Park, Long Beach and Vernon; California Water Service and the Golden State Water Company.