IMPERIAL COUNTY — Farmer Mike Abatti says he plans to ask the California Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the Court of Appeals in favor of the Imperial Irrigation District in his years-long lawsuit against the district over its water-management plan, according to a statement released Aug. 10 through his attorney, Cheryl Orr.
Abatti, after having his petition denied Aug. 5 to have the Fourth District Court of Appeals re-hear the successful appeal from the IID, hopes to have the entire issue filed with the state Supreme Court by the end of the month.
The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the IID on July 16 when it confirmed the district’s position that there is no privileged class of water users. However, the appellate court did direct the district to evaluate its water-sharing management plan, or equitable distribution plan, with farmers that was the basis for Abatti’s initial lawsuit against the IID back in 2013.
In the Court of Appeals’ ruling, it overturned a 2017 decision by Imperial County Superior Court Judge Brooks Anderholt in Abatti’s favor that stated the water rights held in trust by IID were in fact “appurtenant to the land.”
Although it had historically been IID’s assertion that the Valley’s water rights were equal among all water users, and that IID was the steward of those rights on the users’ behalf, Anderholt’s decision essentially said the water rights were tied to the ownership of the land, and that the farmers who owned that land could do what they saw fit to do with the water.
Three years after that decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeals overruled that opinion.
“As we have said all along, and the court agrees, the owner of the Imperial Valley’s water rights is the Imperial Irrigation District,” IID board President Norma S. Galindo said. “The owner of the district is the people that it serves. We are very pleased to learn the court has denied the petition for a rehearing, but we are prepared to continue defending against any future efforts to relitigate this historic decision.”
Galindo felt that the Court of Appeals verdict clarified language in the original decision that made the judgement more in the district’s favor.
Abatti has never really spoken to the media in the years since Anderholt’s initial ruling or about the lawsuit in general, at least not that could be easily found. In a page-long statement to the Calexico Chronicle dated Aug. 10, Abatti, who served on the IID board prior from December 2006 to December 2010, detailed why he believes farmers’ water rights are constitutionally protected..
He stated he filed suit over the equitable-distribution plan in 2013 because it divided water among users in case of a drought. He feared local farmers would end up last in line to receive water as a result, he said.
“My challenge was based on a number of long-standing legal principles, including the precept that water rights are appurtenant to the ground upon which the water is used and the rule that water not be transferred when it injures existing user,” Abatti stated.
Abatti’s position is that farmers’ constitutional rights guarantee them priority to IID’s water for their farming needs over other users and those rights must be respected in future equitable-distribution plans, Orr said.
Orr’s client alleged district board members were duplicitous in courtroom arguments.
“Disappointed with the limitations placed on their authority, the district’s board of directors voted to appeal the trial court ruling, disingenuously casting the legal debate as being over ‘who owned the water,’” Abatti said.
Abatti’s statement said despite IID’s claimed victory, the appeals court found that the district’s equitable-distribution plan to be illegal. However, inconsistencies in the ruling left unchallenged would create problems in the future for farmers.
“One inconsistency was the court’s finding that landowners have a constitutionally protected property right interest to water which is appurtenant to their land,” Abatti said. “Yet, the court ruled this right was no different than the rights of others in the district who did not possess such interests.”
The second inconsistency he cited in the ruling was that the court confirmed farmers’ legal protection from injury resulting in changes of water use and found the equitable-distribution plan unfair to farmers but ultimately concluded no changes in the plan were made that would be detrimental to farmers.
“These legal inconsistencies were ignored in favor of the premise that the district’s board of directors exercises broad discretion in how it apportions water,” Abatti said. “The problem with the opinion’s inconsistencies is that it creates great uncertainty with respect to future decisions concerning water use in the Imperial Valley.”
Abatti ended his statement by reaffirming his commitment to protecting the Valley’s most valuable resource, its water, for future generations.
When the district reinstitutes its EDP will depend on where the litigation goes next, but equity among all water users will be the district’s overriding goal in the revised plan, IID spokesperson Robert Schettler stated in an Aug. 10 email.