Scott River Public Trust Ruling

On July 15, 2014, Judge Allen Sumner of the California Superior Court issued an important ruling in the case of Environmental Law Foundation v.  State Water Resources Control Board, concluding that the California public trust doctrine constrains landowners’ rights to pump groundwater in a way that harms public trust uses of navigable waterways.    The case arose from a longstanding dispute over the management of the Scott River in Siskiyou County in northern California.  According to plaintiffs’ allegations, extensive pumping of hydrologically connected groundwater has depleted flows in the river, harming fisheries and adversely affecting recreational uses of the river.   The Environmental Law Foundation and others filed suit seeking a declaratory judgment and an injunction requiring the County to consider the impact of groundwater pumping on public trust uses of the Scott River before issuing any new well permits.

Judge Sumner handed the plaintiffs a big win.  He ruled that the public trust doctrine applies to the extraction of groundwater that causes harm to navigable waters harming the public’s right to use those navigable waters for trust purposes.  He also ruled that the County has a duty, as a subdivision of the State, to consider how pumping hydrologically connected groundwater will affect public trust uses before issuing well permits.   Importantly, in accord with the established understanding of the California public trust doctrine, the ruling does not necessarily bar the County, after taking the public trust into account, from issuing permits that may not promote, and indeed “may unavoidably harm,” public trust uses.  But at the least, the County will have a duty, in accord with the National Audubon precedent, “to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.”

An appeal appears likely.  Stay tuned.