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City can continue pumping water from wells used by San Juan Hills Golf Course, judge says

The city of San Juan Capistrano is free to continue drawing water from two wells near the San Juan Hills Golf Club, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled last week. Photo: iStock.com/nattrass
The city of San Juan Capistrano is free to continue drawing water from two wells near the San Juan Hills Golf Club, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled last week, at least until a lawsuit between the two parties is settled. A tentative court date has been set for August. Photo: iStock.com/nattrass

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.

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comments (3)

  • My God, we’re in an extended “severe” to “exceptional” drought, and the Golf Course is pumping water to irrigate its grass, while the rest of us are told to stop wasting water on our lawns. The people running the Golf Course are insane. If the drought continues another 12 to 24 months, we could very well be out of water. We can live without a round of Golf on a nice green lawn, but we can’t live without water. No water, no food crop and starvation follows. No water, dehydration and death follows.

    We need to be finding ways to conserve water, and watering a Golf Course green is not a way to conserve water. At a time like this, taking water to keep a Golf Course green should be labeled a crime against humanity.

    • It is not an issue of allocation based on need. It comes down to who has primary rights to the water. Four years ago the City put in wells to suck out the water, and now the basin is failing. If the government wants to take something that doesn’t belong to it – in this case water – it should not just move in and take it. The government is permitted to take for public need by way of condemnation and payment. It did not do that. For example, if the City decided the town needs your home for a police station, it would need to pay for it — not just take it.

      • Water is a human right and in my book trumps the need of a golf course green or lawn any day of the week. I agree we should not be pumping water from the basin because the rivers/creeks that it depends on to recharge itself are drying up. We also have some archaic laws on how water is managed on the books that need to be overturned.

        Now that we know the oil companies have been illegally pumping toxic water in the aquifers in the Central Valley, we need to ban fracking because we can’t afford to waste and/or poison our drinking water.

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