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Public Trust Doctrine Applies to Groundwater, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act Exists Concurrently with Common Law and Did Not “Occupy the Field”


In Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board (2018) 26 Cal.App.5th 844, the Third District Court of Appeal held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater basin management where groundwater may effect “navigable waters” and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), Water Code section 10720 et seq., did not change this.

The parties stipulated to the facts and issues for the Court to address. The Scott River is a tributary of the Klamath River and a navigable waterway located in the northwest California. The Scott River has historically been used for water recreation and serves as habitat for salmon species listed in the Endangered Species Act. Groundwater aquifers adjacent to the Scott River in Siskiyou County (County) are hydrologically connected to the surface flows of the Scott River. Local farmers drilled groundwater wells and, in some summers and early fall months, the River was dewatered due to the groundwater pumping.

Environmental groups petitioned the County and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) to take administrative action to limit pumping in the Scott River watershed based on the public trust doctrine. When both refused, Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) filed suit.

ELF alleged that groundwater resources, which are interconnected with the surface water flows of the Scott River, are subject to and protected by the State’s public trust doctrine. The SWRCB reconsidered and adopted ELF’s position before the litigation concluded. The County claimed that it had no duty to limit groundwater pumping or consider its environmental impacts. The County further claimed that SGMA, which created a statewide system of groundwater management, was a comprehensive statutory scheme that displaced common law principles like the public trust doctrine. The trial court held that the public trust doctrine applies to groundwater in this case and SGMA did not effect this. The County timely appealed.

The Appellate Court, with Presiding Justice Raye writing for a unanimous Court, relied heavily on National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 419 and held that groundwater in the Scott River Valley is subject to the public trust doctrine. In National Audubon, the Supreme Court held that the public trust doctrine fully applies to the State’s complex water rights system. Specifically, the City of Los Angeles’ diversion of water from the non-navigable, freshwater streams flowing into Mono Lake, which were reducing the lake level and causing environmental damage to the lake ecosystem, could be limited by state water regulators under the public trust doctrine. The Court held that the Scott River facts were analogous to those in National Audubon as the pumping was similarly effecting the water level of the river. However, there was a heightened duty to protect the Scott River where it is a navigable waterway. “The analysis begins and ends with whether the challenged activity harms a navigable waterway and thereby violate the public trust.” Accordingly, the Court concluded that the public trust doctrine fully applies to extractions of groundwater that effect a navigable waterway.

The Court then held that, by enacting the SGMA, the Legislature did not intend to “occupy the field” of groundwater management and thereby abolish the public trust doctrine. Definitively, the Court held, “the enactment of SGMA does not, as the County maintains, occupy the field, replace or fulfill public trust duties, or scuttle decades of decisions upholding, defending, and expanding the public trust doctrine.”

The Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Key Point:                                                            

The State and its legal subdivisions must concurrently consider public trust principles and the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in monitoring groundwater resources. Further, only where the Legislature intended to “occupy the field” will common law principles be superseded by Legislative acts.

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dateAugust 29th, 2018byby


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