A jury trial to determine whose groundwater rights should win out in a 5-year-old clash between public water purveyors and private landowners near Paso Robles approached a conclusion in Santa Clara County Superior Court the week of Sept. 20.
In 2013, a small group of North County property owners, led by vintner Cindy Steinbeck, filed a quiet title water rights lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, amid anxiety about the drought, its impact on the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, and the regulations set to curb water pumping.
The suit named the city of Paso Robles, SLO County, San Miguel CSD, Templeton CSD, and Atascadero Mutual Water Company as defendants—water purveyors allegedly encroaching on their water rights.
"This legal action seeks to protect the inherent right to groundwater that came with our properties when we bought them. [It] is not about seeking anything that is not already ours by California law," reads the mission statement for the plaintiffs' group, Protect Our Water Rights.
Since then, more than 600 landowners joined the suit, and the case moved to Santa Clara, under Judge Peter Kirwan, where it's crawled through discovery and preliminary hearings.
The case finally went to trial on Sept. 4. According to attorneys involved, both sides had rested their cases as of New Times' press time. They expect the jury to submit a ruling by the end of the month. The decision point will be whether the defendant public purveyors have established prescriptive rights to the basin's water to serve their customers in the towns and cities.
"[The jury] will determine whether the city and other public water suppliers acquired a right to use groundwater," Paso Robles' counsel, Best Best & Krieger, wrote in a statement to New Times.
Tim McNulty, counsel for SLO County, added in a phone call with New Times: "The county is a water supplier to our customers and has an obligation to monitor and study groundwater. We want to make sure that, whatever happens, we have the ability to do both of those things."
Steinbeck did not respond to emailed questions from New Times before press time.
The quiet title case will conclude as the very same agencies and landowners simultaneously work to develop water management policies for the basin as required by the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Attorneys and stakeholders say that the outcome of the case will not impact their SGMA requirements.
But it's unclear whether the court's decision could lead to an adjudication of the basin, which is what happened in the Santa Maria Valley basin as a result of a similar quiet title lawsuit led by now-Santa Barbara County Supervisor Peter Adam. Δ