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Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary et al v. Golden State Water Company et al

September 27, 2011


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Conrad Aragon, Judge. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. C506806)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kriegler, J.



This is an appeal by the parties moving to amend a judgment (the moving parties)*fn1 dating back to 1961 imposing a "physical solution"*fn2 on the West Coast Groundwater Basin (the West Basin). The proposed amendment involved utilization of "dewatered" acreage in the West Basin, which was not part of the physical solution in the 1961 judgment. The trial court ruled in favor of two parties opposing the amendment to the judgment (the opposing parties),*fn3 reasoning that language in the proposed amendment included environmental findings that would potentially be inconsistent with any environmental impact report (EIR) later prepared under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) (Pub. Resources Code, § 21000 et seq.).

The first issue in this appeal is whether the jurisdiction retained by the trial court in the 1961 judgment imposing the physical solution extends to utilization of the dewatered portion of the West Basin. In light of language in a 1980 amendment to the 1961 judgment, we hold the trial court did have jurisdiction to consider the motion to amend the judgment.

The second issue is whether the trial court erred in denying the motion to amend the judgment, without holding an evidentiary hearing, out of concern that certain express and implied findings in the proposed amendment might ultimately be inconsistent with any later EIR under CEQA. We conclude that under California's constitutional approach to water law, if the parties could not agree on a resolution of the issue presented in the motion to amend the judgment, the trial court had a duty to admit evidence, and if necessary, suggest a physical solution for use of dewatered acreage. (City of Lodi v. East Bay Mun. Utility Dist. (1936) 7 Cal.2d 316, 341.) We further hold the trial court erred in requiring that the moving parties obtain EIRs under CEQA prior to litigating a physical solution to the issue of dewatered acreage. The express language of Water Code section 10753*fn4 prohibited the moving parties from adopting the storage plan without court approval because of the existing court order imposing a physical solution on the West Basin.

We therefore reverse the order denying the motion to amend the judgment and remand the matter to the trial court for a full hearing on a physical solution to the water storage issue.

California's Approach to Water Rights

Since 1928, California's public policy is to foster the reasonable beneficial use of water. (Cal. Const., art. X, § 2 ,formerly art. XIV, § 3; § 100; City of Lodi v. East Bay Mun. Utility Dist., supra, 7 Cal.2d at pp. 337-338.) "It is hereby declared that because of the conditions prevailing in this State the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare. . . . This section shall be self-executing, and the Legislature may also enact laws in the furtherance of the policy in this section contained." (Cal. Const., art. X, § 2.) The policy protects actual and prospective reasonable beneficial uses. (City of Barstow v. Mojave Water Agency (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1224, 1241-1242; Tulare Dist. v. Lindsay-Strathmore Dist. (1935) 3 Cal.2d 489, 525.)

The moving parties sought to store water in underground dewatered storage spaces of the West Basin. Section 1242 provides: "The storing of water underground, including the diversion of streams and the flowing of water on lands necessary to the accomplishment of such storage, constitutes a beneficial use of water if the water so stored is thereafter applied to the beneficial purposes for which the appropriation for storage was made." Subsurface storage, which is akin to a natural reservoir, falls within the broad constitutional amendment governing all the water uses in this state. (Central and West Basin Water Replenishment Dist. v. Southern Cal. Water Co. (2003) 109 Cal.App.4th 891, 905; see also § 105.)*fn5 "[T]he storage of water for the purposes of flood control, equalization and stabilization of the flow and future use, is included within the beneficial uses to which the waters of the rivers and streams of the state may be put within the intent of the constitutional amendment." (Meridian, Ltd. v. San Francisco (1939) 13 Cal.2d 424, 449.)

The West Basin Judgment

The West Basin is a groundwater basin which includes 101,000 acres in Los Angeles County, located to the west of the Central Basin. The two basins are separated by a geologic fault but are hydrogeologically connected. The West Basin is partially replenished by groundwater underflow from the Central Basin. The West Basin supplies a portion of the water to about 1.35 million people; the two basins combined supply more than 4 million people with their daily water.

Prior to 1959, population growth in urban areas increased groundwater pumping to meet increased demands. Pumping for the West Basin reached levels as high as or more than double the amount of the California Department of Water Resources considered to be safe to withdraw on an annual basis without causing harm to the basin's water supply. The drop in groundwater levels resulted in seawater intrusion, increased pumping costs, and the risk of loss for drinking water storage space. The basins were in an "overdraft" condition, meaning the quantity of water pumped out of the basin exceeds the amount of natural replenishment.

Efforts to address the overdraft issue in the West Basin culminated with a lawsuit filed on October 24, 1945, by the California Water Service, Palos Verdes Water Companies, and the City of Torrance against over 600 named and fictitious defendants. (See California Water Service Co. v. Edward Sidebotham & Son (1964) 224 Cal.App.2d 715, 721.) The WRD, one of the moving parties in this case, was formed in 1959 pursuant to section 6000 et seq. to be the public agency permanently charged with replenishing the groundwater pumped out of the basins by various entities. In the early 1960's, the courts adjudicated issues concerning the overdrafts from the basins which resulted in two court judgments (the "Central Basin Judgment" and the "West Basin Judgment").

The West Basin Judgment, entered on August 22, 1961, was a stipulated judgment between the parties owning more than 80 per cent of the prescriptive rights in the basin. The parties agreed to allocate the water, restrict total production, and provide for an exchange of pool arrangement.

The West Basin Judgment does not contain provisions relating to storage. The trial court reserved jurisdiction and continued supervision over the West Basin Judgment through the Department of Water Resources acting as Watermaster. "The Court hereby reserves continuing jurisdiction, and upon application of any party hereto having an Adjudicated Right or upon its own motion, may review (1) its determination of the safe yield of the Basin, or, (2) the Adjudicated Rights, in the aggregate, of all of the parties as affected by the abandonment or forfeiture of any such rights, in whole or in part, and by the abandonment or forfeiture of any such rights by any other person or entity, and, in the event of material change be found, to adjudge that the Adjudicated Right of each party shall be ratably changed . . . ." Paragraph XII of the 1961 judgment states: "The Court further reserves jurisdiction so that at any time and from time to time, upon its own motion or upon application of any party hereto having an Adjudicated Right, . . . to make such modifications of or such additions to, the provisions of this judgment, or make such further order or orders as may be necessary or desirable for the adequate enforcement, protection or preservation of the rights of such parties as herein determined."

The West Basin Judgment has been amended on multiple occasions since 1961. Pertinent to this case, the West Basin Judgment was amended on March 21, 1980 (the 1980 judgment), to deal with a series of problems. The following items were included in the 1980 judgment: carryover rights when a party did not extract all of its allocated water during a year; sanctions to be imposed when a party extracts water in excess of its annual allocation; carryover rights for water not extracted in portions of 1976 through 1978; exchange of "supplemental water" that was not part of a party's extraction rights; the authority of the Watermaster to allocate the use of the supplemental water based on price considerations; and a pricing and dispute mechanism which involved the Watermaster and potential judicial review.

The 1980 judgment provides a mechanism for replenishing water in an emergency,*fn6 by placing restrictions on any replenishment agreement and requiring consideration of local hydrological conditions and a need to protect the basin from seawater intrusion.*fn7 The 1980 judgment goes beyond the issue of extraction rights by imposing a physical solution which regulates carry-over rights, imposes sanctions for overproduction, provides supplemental water which could be placed in an exchange pool, and grants the Watermaster extensive rights to administer and allocate supplemental prices. This modification to the judgment also ...

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