Casitas Municipal Water District loses legal battle

The federal government wins fight over water rights for the endangered steelhead trout

By Maureen Foley 04/12/2007

A local water district’s complicated and contentious two-year battle with the federal government over water rights and who should pay for the facilities needed to help restore the endangered steelhead trout appears to be over. And it looks as though the Feds (and the steelhead) won. On March 29, Judge John Wiese at the United States Court of Federal Claims issued a ruling in favor of the federal government and against the Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD) over water rights. CMWD will now be required to leave 3,200 acre feet of water from its supply in the Ventura River for the steelhead every year, instead of diverting the water into Lake Casitas. (3,200 acre feet is 17 percent of the total water used by CMWD customers during an average, non-drought year, according to Ron Merckling, CMWD Water Conservation Manager.)

According to CMWD board president Russ Baggerly, the legal wrangling began in January 2005, when the CMWD filed a lawsuit against the federal government to recoup costs related to the building of the Robles Fish Passage and to prove that the federal government’s decision to force the CMWD to divert more water for the steelhead trout into the Ventura River was illegal. (The federal government directed CMWD to build the fish passage and to divert more water into the Ventura River for the steelhead trout as part of the Endangered Species Act.)

In October 2006, a court ruled in favor of the federal government in regard to the fish passage, making the CMWD responsible for the cost of building the facility. With the latest ruling, which was issued about the government’s ability to claim the diverted water for the fish, Baggerly said that CMWD has “essentially lost the case.”

For Baggerly, the ruling validates his opinion, from the beginning, that this case could not be won. He said that the CMWD needs to “get out of this and stop spending [the rate payers’] money.” Baggerly claims that legal fees associated with the court case have already increased water rates by 8 percent and that pursuing further legal action will only make water rates increase further.

Bill Hicks, a CMWD board member for 17 years, who said that he will vote in favor of appealing the recent ruling, said he is disappointed by the recent legal decision and that it could translate, in the long term, into higher water rates and possible water shortages for the CMWD’s 3,500 rate payers. “Farmers will bear the burden [of this],” said Hicks.

He also said that the needs of the endangered steelhead must be balanced with the needs of local citizens. “Having [steelhead] trout benefits the whole country. No one is against the steelhead [returning]. The question is how to do it without putting a burden onto rate payers,” said Hicks. Hicks said that the federal government will now be allowed to take 70 percent of the district’s water without paying for it, while Ojai Valley suffers from possible drought conditions.

The CMWD Board is expected to vote, during its April 11 meeting, on whether to appeal the legal decision, end the lawsuit or take other action. Hicks said that he will vote to appeal the case, but Baggerly said that he will “vote to terminate this ill-advised adventure.” According to Hicks and Baggerly, the latest ruling against the CMWD means the majority of the board members will probably vote against taking further action. In other words, the March 30 ruling could prove to be the end of the line for this two-year legal struggle.

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