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Relating to the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin, California Court Finds Issue of Future Prescriptive Rights Not Ripe for Review

Relating to the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin, California Court Finds Issue of Future Prescriptive Rights Not Ripe for Review

Appellant landowners filed a motion seeking to clarify that an amended judgment would protect their overlying water rights from future prescription by other water users. The trial court denied the motion on the merits and the landowners appealed. The Court of Appeal for the Sixth Judicial District reversed, finding that the issue was not ripe and therefore was not justiciable, and remanded with directions. [City of Santa Maria v. Adam, 43 Cal.App.5th 152 (6th Dist. 2019).]

Factual and Procedural Background

This case is the third appeal to have arisen in connection with a dispute regarding the rights to groundwater contained in the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin (Basin). The appellants were a group of landowners, mostly farmers, who extract groundwater for agricultural use. The respondents were public water producers that pump groundwater for municipal and industrial uses for their citizens and customers.

The Santa Maria Valley Water District commenced the underlying case in 1997 to adjudicate the rights to the Basin. The landowners filed a cross-complaint that stated multiple causes of action, including a cause of action to quiet title to overlying rights to the Basin groundwater. The litigation over water rights (which included a number of other issues not pertinent to this third appeal) was tried in several phases. After trial, the trial court denied the quiet title remedy because the landowners had not submitted evidence from which the court could calculate the quantity of water they had pumped during the prescriptive period. In the first appeal, City of Santa Maria v. Adam, 211 Cal.App.4th 266 (6th Dist. 2012), the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded, directing the trial court to quiet title to the landowners’ overlying rights to native groundwater by declaring that these rights have priority over all appropriators, less the amount that respondents are entitled to pursuant to their perfected prescriptive rights.

On remand, the trial court amended its judgment pursuant to the Court of Appeal’s direction. The landowners then appealed from the amended judgment, claiming that the amended judgment failed to quiet title because it did not quantify the proportionate prescriptive loss that could be attributed to each landowner’s respective parcel. In that second appeal, City of Santa Maria v. Adam, 248 Cal.App.4th 504 (6th Dist. 2016), the Court of Appeal affirmed the amended judgment after finding that quantification of the proportionate prescriptive loss attributable to each of the landowners’ respective parcels was unnecessary and the judgment was not illusory.

Before the Court of Appeal issued its opinion in the second appeal, the landowners filed a motion with the trial court seeking to clarify that the amended judgment protects their overlying rights from future prescription by appropriators. The trial court denied the motion on the merits, and the landowners appealed. In this third appeal, the Court of Appeal found that the issue was not ripe and was therefore not justiciable. It then reversed and remanded with directions.

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

On appeal, the landowners argued that the amended judgment prevents future prescriptive rights from forming, and that the motion to clarify should not have been denied.

Appealability

The Court of Appeal first addressed the issue of appealability. Generally, a reviewing court has jurisdiction over a direct appeal only where there is: 1) an appealable order; or 2) an appealable judgment. In the context of post judgment orders, the issues raised by the appeal from the order must be different from those arising from an appeal from the judgment, and the order must either affect the judgment or relate to it by enforcing it or staying its execution.

Here, the Court of Appeal concluded that the post judgment order denying the landowners’ motion to clarify was an appealable order. In particular, it found that the appeal both raised issues different from the second appeal and would relate to the amended judgment’s enforcement because the order denying the motion to clarify related to the scope of the judgment.

Justiciability

The Court of Appeal next addressed respondents’ claims that the issues raised in the landowners’ motion were not ripe and therefore not justiciable. Generally, California courts will only decide justiciable controversies. This concept embodies the principle that courts will not entertain an action that is not founded on an actual controversy. The ripeness doctrine is based on the recognition that judicial decision-making is best conducted in the context of an actual set of facts so that the issues will be framed with sufficient definiteness to enable the court to make a decree finally disposing of the controversy.

There are two questions that a court will review to determine if an issue is ripe. First, a controversy is ripe for adjudication when it has reached, but has not passed, the point where the facts have sufficiently congealed to permit an intelligent and useful decision to be made. Second, a controversy is ripe if withholding a decision would result in hardship to the parties.

Applying these principles, the Court of Appeal found that the landowners could not satisfy the first prong of the ripeness test because a resolution of the prescription issue would require the court to speculate about hypothetical scenarios where respondents or other water users attempt to prescript against the landowners’ overlying rights. Discussing all of the potential scenarios, the Court of Appeal concluded, would result in the rendering of an impermissible advisory opinion. The court also found that the landowners had not demonstrated that they would suffer hardship absent an immediate decision. The appropriate time to test the effect of the amended judgment on future prescriptive rights would be when an actual controversy arises. Until that time, the Court of Appeal found, there is merely a disagreement among the parties as to how the amended judgment should be interpreted, and “courts will not intervene merely to settle a difference of opinion.”

Conclusion and Implications

The case is significant as part of the ongoing disputes regarding water rights in the Basin and also because it provides a substantive discussion of ripeness. The decision is available online at: https://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/H042712.PDF

(James Purvis)