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July 24, 2019  |  Written by J. Palmer Hilton

California Court of Appeal Affirms Ruling Allowing Irrigation Districts to Withhold Water Deliveries from Landowners That Violate District Rules

Earlier this year, the California Court of Appeal upheld a trial court decision authorizing an irrigation district to withhold water deliveries to landowners within the district who violate rules promulgated by the district.  The ruling in Inzana v.Turlock Irrigation Dist. Bd. of Directors (2019) 35 Cal.App.5th 429 (Inzana) means that irrigation districts have authority to promulgate rules curtailing water deliveries to landowners who interfere with a district’s ability to carry out its duty to furnish water for beneficial use.

The plaintiff in Inzana (Plaintiff) owns property within Turlock Irrigation District (TID) subject to an easement owned by TID providing for ingress and egress for purposes of maintaining and repairing a water pipeline running underneath the easement.  The Plaintiff planted over 160 pistachio trees within the easement making ingress and egress difficult, as well as creating a potential for future damage to the pipeline from growing tree roots.  After an administrative hearing, TID found that Plaintiff’s tree planting interfered with the conditions of the easement and ordered him to remove the trees.  The trial court upheld this ruling, and Plaintiff appealed asserting that:  (1) TID’s order interfered with a vested fundamental right; (2) TID did not have authority to withhold water deliveries; and (3) TID’s rules are inconsistent with the Irrigation District Law (Wat. Code, § 20500 et seq.).

In Inzana, the Court first determined that the Plaintiff had no vested right to water deliveries or to plant trees within the easement; rather, TID had a right under the easement to operate, maintain, and repair the pipeline.  The Court relied on the rule that a servient tenement has no right to use his property in a manner prohibited by the easement.  The Plaintiff’s planting of the trees within the easement interfered with this right of TID and interfered with TID’s ability to prevent damage to the pipeline.

Second, the Court determined that TID had authority to promulgate and enforce rules curtailing water deliveries to landowners in violation of TID’s rules.  The Court reasoned that, although the authority to adopt rules curtailing water deliveries is not expressly given to irrigation districts by statute, the Legislature delegated “broad and comprehensive” powers to irrigation districts to carry out their duty to furnish water by rulemaking.  The Court found that termination of water deliveries was a tool within TID’s authority to distribute water equitably.

Lastly, the Court determined that the rules promulgated by TID were consistent with the Irrigation District Law.  The two rules at issue authorized the curtailment of water deliveries and prohibited encroachment on TID’s rights of way.  The Court found that the rules were quasi-legislative in nature and therefore would be upheld if there was a rational basis for their application.  Both rules were deemed to have a rational basis because they helped facilitate TID’s purpose in furnishing water for beneficial use.

For additional information on this topic, please contact Palmer Hilton at philton@somachlaw.com or 916-446-7979.

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