Water is worth fighting for
February 25, 2017
OPINION by CINDY STEINBECK
Protect Our Water Rights (POWR), a coalition of North County landowners, was formed for a single purpose from which we have not wavered – to protect our members’ legally predominant rights to reasonably use the water beneath their lands.
Over time, many of our neighbors joined the fight, and POWR has steadily grown from an initial membership of seven landowners to over 1,200 individuals and entities owning over 20,000 acres. After three years of successful litigation, however, the window for landowners to join our action and defend their water rights as part of the POWR group is closing.
Many people have asked me why I decided to spearhead this action, and what the group hopes to achieve. POWR has a simple purpose: To secure our constitutionally-guaranteed right to have the first priority to reasonably and beneficially use of groundwater on our properties. This vision and purpose has kept us strong and growing in both numbers and knowledge.
Legally, it is accomplished by quieting title to our rights as against any adverse claims by urban water “purveyors.” It is simple, we must protect our individual rights or those rights can be lost. This is true for all landowners who rely on groundwater, no matter how small your parcel.
The right to reasonably use of the water underneath your property is known as an “overlying right.” Under California law, all landowners have an equal overlying right relative to each other, and that right is superior to the rights of municipalities or water purveyors to sell groundwater to urban consumers. This makes sense when you think about it. If you live or farm in a rural area, your only source of water is likely your groundwater well.
By contrast, urban areas have the ability and the tax base to acquire water from a variety of sources.
Despite its legal superiority, your overlying right can essentially be stolen from you under a legal theory called prescription, which is similar to adverse possession.
In fall of 2013, the founding members of POWR filed a quiet title action against the County of San Luis Obispo and four other purveyors of water in the Paso Robles Basin—the City of Paso Robles, San Miguel Community Services District, Templeton Community Services District, and Atascadero Mutual Water Company—because of the strong suspicion that these defendants were trying to usurp the water rights of rural landowners.
This suspicion was proven correct when all of the defendants except Atascadero Mutual Water Company asserted prescription in response to the lawsuit. Essentially, each of those municipal purveyors has admitted in court that they intend to steal the water out from under rural landowners in order to sell it to their own urban customers. This has already happened in other areas throughout the state—we cannot let it happen here if we value our rural way of life!
POWR has sometimes unfairly been criticized by those who mistakenly think that we filed this action because we want to be able to use as much water as we please without restriction or regard for the natural limits of the resource.
Quite the contrary—we filed this action because we are acutely aware of the extent to which our quality of life depends on this most precious resource, and we didn’t want to see its use decided by politics or the most financially powerful.
You may also have heard about the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA– which mandates sustainable management of the state’s groundwater basins– and think that such a law makes POWR’s lawsuit unnecessary. Again, this is a misconception. First, SGMA expressly says that it does not alter existing water rights law, which means actions like ours to quiet title to the legal superiority of our overlying rights when they are threatened are still necessary.
Second, one of the biggest problems with SGMA is that it effectively puts the fox in charge of the hen house: the Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, or GSAs, formed to manage the basins can only be made up of local governmental agencies, water districts, or mutual water companies—in other words, the same water purveyors who are supposed to have the most junior rights will be deciding who gets to use the water and for what purpose!
This, again, subjects our most vital resource to the whims of the political process and financial influence. SGMA’s goal of achieving sustainability in groundwater use is a good one, but the law as written is far from a panacea.
These are the reasons why my family and I, along with 1,200-plus other POWR members, continue to fight this fight. Throughout this process, I have continued to hold informational meetings at my family’s winery, open to anyone who is interested, to explain the same things I have tried to explain here. Once they come to understand what is at stake, hundreds of landowners have joined us.
Due to a court-ordered deadline, however, POWR must close its membership list as of Feb. 28. After that deadline, no additional properties can be added to the lawsuit.
I will be holding one last educational and sign up meeting on Feb. 27 at 6 p.m., held at Steinbeck Vineyards, 5940 Union Road in Paso Robles. You may also call 805-227-0776 for more information if you cannot make this meeting.
I encourage every rural landowner to educate themselves on this important topic, because nothing is more important to our daily lives than our access to water.