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City can continue pumping water from wells used by San Juan Hills Golf Course, judge says
By Andrea Papagianis
San Juan Capistrano received the green light to continue pumping water from a source used by San Juan Hills Golf Club, at least for now, as the two parties’ lawyers prepare for a trial expected next summer.
On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter Wilson rejected a request from the golf course’s lawyers to prohibit the city from collecting water from the San Juan Basin. Wilson noted there was no confirmation the city’s pumping caused negative impacts on the course and said he would reconsider last week’s decision if new evidence arises.
Both parties draw water from the basin—the club utilizes it for course irrigation while the city utilizes two basin wells in its groundwater-to-drinking water operation, which includes eight wells in total.
The case, filed in August, pitted a city attempting to achieve self-reliance in a region where most municipalities import a majority of their water supply against a local business that draws customers to lush fairways. It highlighting a growing number of water problems being faced municipalities and businesses in the midst of California’s drought.
Wilson’s decision reversed a tentative ruling he issued Thursday halting the city’s pumping immediately.
The inverted ruling came after oral arguments where City Attorney Hans Van Ligten, with the Costa Mesa-based firm Rutan & Tucker, presented two century-old cases, from which courts require a party to show they will suffer irreparable harm unless an injunction is issued.
At question now are respective water rights—and whether the golf course has right to the water and if the city is obstructing on those rights by drawing from the dwindling source. At trial, the club will seek a permanent injunction barring the city from pumping water.
The city taking water has prevented San Juan Hills from maintaining its property, said Gerald Klein, the Newport Beach attorney representing the golf club.
Last month, the state’s record drought conditions forced the South Coast Water District to temporarily shut down its groundwater recovery facility in Dana Point that draws from the San Juan Basin. The district, which provides water to 40,000 residents and 1,000 businesses in Dana Point and parts of Laguna Beach, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, made the decision in order to allow underground reservoirs to recharge.
The San Juan Basin Authority, which includes members from the city of San Juan along with the Moulton Niguel, Santa Margarita and South Coast water districts, followed suit and closed two wells near the golf club regarding a lack of water and concerns about stress on surface vegetation.
Since the wells were closed, the city’s Groundwater Recovery Plant has seen a reduced production capacity from 4.3 million gallons per day to 2.8 million, according to a Sept. 26 report from the city manager. The report also shows an overall four-month decrease in production.
But Klein argues the club’s water rights trump those of the city. Since the golf club sits atop the San Juan Basin, it has riparian rights—meaning it can use whatever it needs of the water source to maintain the course. On the other hand, the city, acts an appropriator that takes water away to fulfill an outside need.
Under California law, Klein said riparian rights are “senior” to those of an appropriator. A century’s worth of law he believes will render a verdict in favor of the club come time for trial.
Mayor Sam Allevato said he was pleased with the decision.
“But it doesn’t solve the drought,” Allevato said in a press release. “We would like to continue to work with the golf club … to achieve their conservation and operational goals.”
Wilson set a tentative trial date for August.
This is the latest litigation the city is facing surrounding water—a subject that has served as a point of contention for the last two years with tiered water rates, lack of production and legal complaints at its core. Last August, the city’s current rate structure was declared illegal by an Orange County Superior Court judge, in a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the Capistrano Taxpayers Association, a local advocacy group.
The city appealed the ruling and continued charging customers based on the contested model. That appeal is expected to be heard on Friday, Nov. 21.