From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Mark Olalde):
The Imperial Irrigation District and farmer Michael Abatti have been locked in a years-long legal battle with as many twists as the river over which it has been fought. The saga might finally come to an end, though, after a California appellate court handed down a ruling on Thursday that found IID is the rightful manager of the portion of the Colorado River guaranteed to the Imperial Valley.
The three-judge panel was asked to determine whether IID fairly distributes water, including to the nearly 500,000 acres of agriculture that receive it every year. Additionally, the judges needed to decide whether farmers, via their private property, had a specific right to Colorado River water, as a trial court judge ruled in 2017. That decision had thrown into question a more than century-old system that doled out water in the agricultural valley south of the Salton Sea.
In the ruling, the judges found that farmers have a guaranteed right to water delivery but that they don’t hold a special claim to water rights above other industrial and residential users…
Equitable Distribution Plan
After the ruling came out, questions remained about the future of the Equitable Distribution Plan, a document IID revised in 2013 to determine how water would be apportioned in the case of a declared shortage on the river. Farmers were put last in line in the plan, and that was the other key question Abatti raised in his litigation.
The appellate court ruled that IID “abused its discretion in how it prioritizes apportionment among categories of water users,” but both sides emerged from the case claiming a level of victory on that point.
In an email, Lee Hejmanowski, one of Abatti’s attorneys, told The Desert Sun, “In 2013, Michael Abatti stood up for all of the farmers in the Imperial Valley by challenging the IID’s so-called ‘Equitable Distribution Plan.’ Mr. Abatti is pleased that the Court of Appeal has affirmed the trial court’s decision striking down the EDP, which was not, in fact, equitable because it treated farmers inequitably.”
Frank Oswalt, IID’s general counsel, said he believes “the board’s got a lot of homework to do” to ensure it is reading the decision correctly when moving forward with some form of the Equitable Distribution Plan. But, Oswalt said he viewed the decision as largely affirming the mechanisms the IID used in the plan.
Wally Leimgruber of the Imperial Valley Coalition for the Fair Sharing of Water, which supports IID’s position, said the ruling was a victory for the district. But, he expects the plan to be rewritten to clearly spell out that all water users must be treated equally if there is a water shortage…
What comes next
Both sides in the legal fight between farmers and the IID have hunkered down to determine the next phase of their battle plans.
“Mr. Abatti and his attorneys are digesting the Court of Appeal’s 106-page decision and determining the next steps in the process,” Hejmanowski said.
Oswalt said the IID, too, is mulling the finer details of the ruling, and it ultimately will be up to the board of directors to decide on next steps. But, he said, IID leadership are satisfied that the decision leaves control over water solidly with them, meaning “the IID board is a lot less likely to want to appeal this than the other side.”
Each side also will need to make a determination about how many more resources they want to plow into the fight.
In a January board meeting, Oswalt told the IID board that the district had racked up a $2.3 million legal bill. While the district would not provide an exact updated figure on Friday, Galindo said it had crept toward the $3 million range…
The parties have 10 days after the appellate court’s decision becomes final — which typically happens within a month from when it was handed down — to request that the state’s apex court take it up. The California Supreme Court only hears about 5% of cases that are sent its way, however, meaning there is a strong chance that Thursday’s decision could be the final word in Abatti’s legal challenge to IID’s control over Colorado River water in the Imperial Valley.