SAN FRANCISCO — The state’s water conservation districts don’t need the approval of property owners or voters to charge their customers fees to fund programs aimed at protecting groundwater, the California Supreme Court ruled on Monday.
But the justices in a unanimous decision also said the districts cannot charge cities disproportionately more than farmers for conservation efforts.
The decision ensures the water districts have a source of funding to undertake projects to replenish ground water — a key irrigation source for farmers that became even more vital during California’s historic drought.
Many groundwater basins throughout California have experienced “overdraft” in recent years, which means more water is being taken out than is being replaced naturally.
The decision may mean the districts will have to reallocate fees “more fairly” between agricultural and non-agricultural groundwater users, said Rick Frank, an environmental law expert at the University of California, Davis School of Law.
Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014 signed legislation that required the first-ever rules for pumping groundwater in California. The law requires agencies in fast-depleting basins to draw up sustainability plans.
Frank said the ruling was significant “because it provided needed and timely guidance” to those agencies, groundwater users and state officials about how to assess groundwater fees to pay for the plans.
The lawsuit pitted the city of Ventura against the United Water Conservation District, which covers all of part of eight groundwater basins over approximately 214,000 acres (87,000 hectares) in central Ventura County.
The city pumps groundwater for residential customers. The district charged the city to fund its conservation efforts under a state law that requires nonagricultural water users pay at least three times more than agricultural users.
Associate Justice Leondra Kruger, writing for six of the seven justices, said groundwater conservation fees do not fall under a state ballot measure — Proposition 218 — that requires the approval of voters or property owners for certain government charges.
But under a separate measure — Proposition 26 — the fees must bear a reasonable relationship to the strain each water user places on the aquifer, she said. The requirement that Ventura pay three times more than farm users for groundwater may not meet that requirement, the court said.
The ruling was a win for Ventura, but the case will require additional litigation to resolve, said Michael Colantuono, an attorney who represented the city.
Mauricio Guardado, general manager of the United Water Conservation District, also claimed victory, saying the district was prepared to defend the fees it charged Ventura.
The ruling will ensure conservation agencies aren’t “lazy about how they set their fees,” said Tim Bittle, a lawyer representing The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which pushes to limit taxes and filed a brief in the case.
“They are going to have to actually apply some science to figure out where the water that they are adding to the aquifer goes and who benefits from it and to look at the various types of land use in their districts to determine whose most responsible for the overdrafting in the first place,” he said.