Turning Water Into Wine: An “Unreasonable Use” of Water in California?

Pending Litigation Likely to Affect Scope of California Constitution’s Ban on Waste & Unreasonable Use of Water

Photo credit: George Rose
Photo credit: George Rose

Today a California appellate court in San Francisco heard arguments in a case that is likely to affect how broadly–or narrowly–California’s State Water Resources Control Board can apply the state’s most powerful water law.

The case, Light v. California State Water Resources Control Board, involves a challenge by wine grape growers in the Russian River watershed of Northern California to a SWRCB rule limiting growers’ ability to divert water from the Russian River in order to spray their vineyards for frost protection purposes.  The Board adopted its “Frost Protection Regulation” in 2008, following complaints from federal wildlife officials that the grape growers‘ water diversions during cold spells resulted in rapid lowering of Russian River water levels and the resulting death of migrating salmon in the river.  (Federal biologists estimate that the growers’ 2008 diversions resulted in the deaths of 25,000 salmon, several species of which are threatened with extinction.)

The Board expressly relied on Article X, section 2 of the California Constitution in issuing and enforcing the regulatory limits on Russian River water diverted for frost protection purposes.  Enacted in 1928, Article X, section 2 proscribes the “waste or unreasonable use” of California’s water resources.  The Board cited this constitutional provision as authority to apply its Frost Protection Ordinance to almost all diverters of water from the Russian River and its tributaries, as well as to hydrologically connected groundwater.

The vineyard owners sued the Board, claiming that the Frost Control Regulation was overbroad and reflected an unduly expansive construction of the Board’s authority to proscribe waste and unreasonable use of water under Article X, section 2.  The trial court agreed and invalidated the Regulation.  The Board’s appeal followed.

On appeal, the scope of the Board’s authority under the waste and unreasonable use doctrine to constrain private parties’ water diversions will be directly at issue.  And that question takes on even more importance today than it had when the Light litigation was originally filed in 2011.  That’s because California’s current, severe drought brings into even sharper focus the tension between private water rights and the Board’s power to limit water users’ diversions in the face of actual or anticipated environmental harm.

The importance of the Light litigation is underscored by separate reports–published in today’s Sacramento Bee–that California water officials are poised to impose specific cutbacks on so-called “post-1914” appropriative water rights holders to address the state’s current drought conditions.  California’s arcane and confusing water rights system requires post-1914 “appropriators” of water from state waterways to obtain permits from the State Water Resources Control Board.  Those permitted water rights are subject to modification by the Board in response to droughts and other exigencies.  Meanwhile, parties who perfected their appropriative water rights before 1914, along with “riparian” landowners diverting from a stream or lake adjacent to their property and most landowners who pump groundwater underlying their property, can divert water without obtaining a Board-issued water permit.  That means that in times of drought like today, Board officials can only exercise permit jurisdiction to impose limits on diversions over a mere fraction of those water rights holders who divert and consume the state’s finite water supplies.

That’s what makes the waste and reasonable use doctrine codified in Article X, section 2 of the California Constitution so important: according to the Board–and the better legal view–the doctrine applies broadly to all of the state’s water supplies and can serve to limit diversions of water by all categories of water rights claimants.  Stated differently, the reasonable use doctrine is an overarching limit on the private use of California’s water resources, and the ultimate legal authority possessed by the Board with respect to all water users in the state.

The Light plaintiffs, by contrast, argue that Article X, section 2 does not apply to riparian or pre-1914 appropriative water rights and, additionally, that the Board can only make waste and reasonable use determinations in individualized, formal and time-consuming administrative  hearings, rather than through broadly applied regulations like the Frost Protection Ordinance.

In sum, the Light case is shaping up as a major test of the State Water Resources Control Board’s authority under Article X, section 2 to limit the exercise of private water rights in California, when the Board believes such action is needed to preserve threatened or endangered species, to respond to severe water shortages triggered by major droughts, or to address other exigencies and emergencies.  Should the growers’ unduly circumscribed interpretation of the Board’s Article X, section 2 powers prevail, California water officials’ ability to take effective action to allocate scarce water resources among competing users, wildlife species and natural ecosystems will be most severely compromised.

Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Turning Water Into Wine: An “Unreasonable Use” of Water in California?”

  1. Your headline is catchy, but doesn’t describe the article. “Turning water into wine” suggests irrigating grape vines.

    Irrigating vineyards is not considered unreasonable use; water is necessary for the vines to survive. The rule is against spraying water not for irrigation but for frost control. That’s a different issue: there are other ways to protect the vines against frost.

  2. I’m of the understanding that water is a critical element in farming any crop. In Mendocino and Sonoma County there are 3 needs for water when it comes to grapes.
    The first is to support the development of the vine when it is first planted and during its growth period. And secondly to support fully mature vines during the growing season to reach optimum ripeness. The third needs is only for those years when the farmer experiences extreme cold temperatures during the early spring season when the shoots are short and tender. The extreme cold will damage the shoots resulting in little to no crops unless the vineyards sprinkle water on the vines. The sprinkled water then freezes around the leaves thereby creating an insulation around the leaf preventing the water inside the leaf from freezing which would cause the leaves to die back.

    Both Mendocino and Sonoma county have been farming grapes since the mid 1850s and are an integral part of the fabric of both the culture and economics of these communities.
    Additionally many grape farmers in the north coast have been granted water permits going back to the early 1900. These farming families have been credited with protecting the health of the river and fish for many many years.
    In addition these farmer have recently found ways to reduce the pressure on water demand by investing in off stream ponds that are filled during high flow as well as investing in wind machine that draw in warm air, mixing with the colder so as to reduce the risk of frost.
    I applaud the farmers for making investments to protect the fish and conserve water for our communities.

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About Richard

Richard Frank

Richard Frank is Professor of Environmental Practice and Director of the U. C. Davis School of Law’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center. From 2006-2010, …

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