From The Palm Springs Desert Sun (Janet Wilson):
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday unanimously declined a petition by Imperial Valley farmer Michael Abatti claiming he and a handful of other agricultural landowners, not the Imperial Irrigation District, held senior rights to Colorado River water that nearly 40 million people across the West depend on.
The decision likely is the last stop for a torturous legal battle that dates back to 2013. As the law stands, farmers have a guaranteed right to water delivery but not a special claim above other users like homes and geothermal plants…
The case’s legal questions dealt with intricate water law, but the stakes were high. If Abatti and the other small group of farmers had been ceded control of some of the oldest, largest rights to Colorado River water supply, the ripple effects could have affected Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Las Vegas and rural users across several states.
IID board President James Hanks said the decision “brings closure to this dispute and clarifies certain misunderstandings about IID’s water rights.”
He said while “IID has always agreed that agricultural water users in Imperial Valley have a legally enforceable right to service by the district,” so do all water users in the district’s service area, thanks to water rights that IID holds in trust for its customers…
IID board Vice President J.B. Hamby said the decision allows the district to focus on ensuring supply for all its customers both now and in the long-term, including “preparing for critical drought discussions on the Colorado River.”
Other users were gratified by the news.
From The Desert Review (Betty Miller):
Abatti wanted the court to vacate the judgement of the Fourth Appellate Court which ruled mostly in favor of IID, determining the water did not belong to the landowners, only the right of water service.
Abatti began the suit in 2013 after the IID instituted its Equitable Distribution Plan (EDP). In light of the continuing drought in the Western states, the IID needed a tool to ration Colorado water if needed. Abatti believed the IID had overstepped its jurisdiction and took the District to the Superior Court where Judge Brooks Anderholt ruled in favor of Abatti.
The IID appealed, and the Fourth Appellate Court’s three-paneled judges reversed Anderholt’s decision.
Abatti argued in his brief to the Supreme Court that landowners have actual water rights per the 1902 Federal Reclamation Act, not just the right to water service. The Abatti brief said his claim is not a new one but has long been protected under federal law.
He also argued that the Imperial Valley farmers and landowners have witnessed a loss of property value since the Fourth Appellate Court’s decision. According to the brief, farmers can’t make produce or field crop contracts, which are worth billions, because they cannot guarantee water delivery. The ruling, according to the brief, has reduced production and investment back into the land, a detriment, Abatti said, to the Nation.
The US Supreme Court did not validate Abatti’s claim by letting the lower court’s verdict stand.