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County of Siskiyou v. Superior Court (Environmental Law Foundation)

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Sacramento

June 13, 2013

COUNTY OF SISKIYOU, Petitioner,
v.
THE SUPERIOR COURT OF SACRAMENTO COUNTY, Respondent ENVIRONMENTAL LAW FOUNDATION et al., Real Parties in Interest.

ORIGINAL PROCEEDING in mandate No. 34201080000583 Petition denied.

Best Best & Krieger, Roderick E. Walston; Thomas P. Guarino, County Counsel, and Natalie E. Reed, Deputy County Counsel, for Petitioners.

No appearance for Respondent.

Michael E. Wall and Noah Garrison for Natural Resources Defense Council as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Respondent and Real Parties in Interest.

James Wheaton, Danielle Fugere, Jennifer Maier; Glen H. Spain; and Richard Michael Frank for Real Parties in Interest Environmental Law Foundation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources.

Kamala D. Harris, Attorney General, Kathleen A. Kenealy, Senior Assistant Attorney General, Robert W. Byrne, Daniel M. Fuchs, Allison Goldsmith, and Mark Poole, Deputy Attorneys General, for Real Party in Interest State Water Resources Control Board.

RAYE, P. J.

Real parties in interest Environmental Law Foundation, Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and Institute for Fisheries Resources (real parties) filed a petition for a writ of mandate in Sacramento County, seeking to halt the issuance of well-drilling permits for nonadjudicated groundwater within the Scott River sub-basin in Siskiyou County. Real parties alleged County of Siskiyou (Siskiyou) and the State Water Resources Control Board (Board) had failed to manage certain described groundwater resources interconnected with the Scott River in a manner consistent with the public trust doctrine. Real parties prayed for injunctive, mandamus, and declaratory relief to recognize the authority of the Board to protect such groundwater under the public trust doctrine, and to compel the County to put in place a well-drilling permit or management plan to protect public trust resources.

Siskiyou demurred to the petition, asserting the Siskiyou Superior Court had exclusive jurisdiction by virtue of its 1980 decree that adjudicated water rights in the Scott River and reserved jurisdiction to review and modify the decree in the interests of justice. Siskiyou also moved to change venue based on the argument that groundwater constitutes real property, and under Code of Civil Procedure section 392, subdivision (a)(1), actions involving right or interest to real property must be tried in the superior court in the county where the property is located.[1]

The trial court overruled the demurrer and denied a change of venue, whereupon Siskiyou brought the present action for a writ of mandate, challenging both decisions. We deny the petition.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Petition for Writ of Mandate

The underlying action, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, seeks a determination that the public trust doctrine, applicable to navigable water and fish in California, applies as well to groundwater with a hydrological connection to public trust waters in the Scott River Valley. Real parties assert that the Board’s authority to protect and manage public trust resources extends to the protection of the described groundwater resource and that Siskiyou, which has a duty to protect public trust resources, must act to protect and manage the groundwater resource through monitoring, regulating, and limiting extractions of groundwater. Real parties assert Siskiyou’s failure to act is causing injury to the Scott River and its populations of fish and wildlife, and pray for mandate and injunctive relief to cease the issuance of well-drilling permits for groundwater until Siskiyou complies with its public trust duties.

Recognizing that in 1980 the Siskiyou Superior Court issued a decree adjudicating “all surface water rights in the Scott River stream system” and “all rights to ground water that is interconnected with the Scott River, ” and reserved jurisdiction to thereafter “review its decree and to change or modify the same as the interests of justice may require, ” real parties limited their prayer for relief to “groundwater not previously adjudicated within the Scott River sub-basin.” The petition alleges the adjudication’s final order and decree “does not affect, regulate or prohibit any wells or sumps to be constructed ‘at least 500 feet from the Scott River or at the most distant point from the river on the land that overlies the interconnected groundwater, whichever is less.’ [Citation.] No groundwater beyond that 500-foot (or less) zone of adjudication was considered in, is affected by or regulated through the adjudicative process.” Real parties also state they do not request a reopening of the 1980 adjudication, but “[w]hether that is deemed a necessary step by the [Board] to managing and regulating groundwater pursuant to the State’s duties under the Public Trust Doctrine is not an issue before this Court.”

The petition states venue is proper in Sacramento under section 401, subdivision (1) because the Board is a California state agency and venue is proper where the Attorney General has an office.

In response to the petition, Siskiyou filed a demurrer for lack of jurisdiction and a motion to transfer venue. Siskiyou argued the Siskiyou Superior Court possesses exclusive jurisdiction to hear the case. According to Siskiyou, contrary to real parties’ assertion, the Scott River decree “expressly applies to and regulates all interconnected groundwater in the Scott River basin, including interconnected groundwater located more than 500 feet from the river. The petitioners’ argument that the ‘zone of adjudication’ for interconnected groundwater is limited to 500 feet is contradicted by the express language of the decree itself.... [¶] Under traditional principles of jurisdiction, the Siskiyou County Superior Court has exclusive jurisdiction to hear the petitioners’ ...


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