Long-running legal battle surrounding plan for underground water-storage continues

CJ Dablo
Staff Writer

A legal dispute over an underground water storage plan continues. The battle has pitted plaintiffs that include Signal Hill, Downey and Cerritos against the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD). The WRD, an agency that manages the groundwater supply for more than 40 Southern California cities, may not be well known to Signal Hill residents and businesses who receive their water bills directly from the City of Signal Hill.
However, the agency plays a key role in supplying water to the area. According to City Manager Ken Farfsing, Signal Hill owns more than 2,000 acre-feet of ground water that needs to be replenished by the WRD, and if the City needs more than its allotment, Signal Hill can lease or purchase water from several sources, including the WRD, another agency called the Central Basin Municipal Water District, or other entities that own water.
Signal Hill joined the two other cities in the lawsuit to fight the WRD on the underground storage issue, and earlier this month, the California Supreme Court determined that a trial court has the jurisdiction over water storage issues. The cities have also filed another lawsuit that challenges the replenishment assessments imposed by the WRD. The cities insist that Proposition 218 applies to these assessments.
Since 2001, water entities had tried to develop a plan for underground-water storage. A court rejected one storage-proposal plan. Later, another plan was discussed in mediation between the WRD and pumpers in the water regional districts called the Central Basin and West Coast Basin, according to Ed Casey, an attorney for the WRD. After this plan was ultimately rejected, another plan was proposed about three years ago, but Signal Hill, Cerritos and Downey objected to that plan for a number of reasons. The plan changes the rules for water-extraction rights and names a new group to serve as the “watermaster.” Casey explained that the watermaster is an oversight entity that enforces the water rights judgment and ensures that water entities stay within their rights allocated within the judgment. However, under the new plan, the watermaster will also make crucial decisions on new water-storage projects, according to Patty Quilizapa, an attorney who represents the cities against the WRD.
The water-extraction rights issue is a key topic for Quilizapa. She explained in an interview Wednesday night that the cities were concerned that the program would allow entities to bank their water-extraction rights, which could lead to speculation of water prices and hoarding in times when the prices of water do increase.
“Under the proposal,” Quilizapa said, “parties would have the ability to save every single year of annual pumping allocation up to 100 percent and save it for a long period of time and sell it to the highest bidder whenever the price is up. …. So it’s basically converting native water to stored private water and keeping it to drive the prices up that concerns the cities.”
Quilizapa also warned against the plan that would allow the WRD to take on an expanded role as part of the watermaster body. She described how the agency would assume major oversight responsibilities over storage, an area where the WRD already had a significant stake.
“The WRD under this plan receives an allocation of 125,000 acre-feet of storage space. So, they are a party with an interest in the storage space, and they would also be a primary part of the watermaster group that would be charged with approving storage projects,” she said.
When Farfsing was asked about the watermaster role in an interview Tuesday, the Signal Hill city manager agreed that the watermaster should be a neutral third party.
Earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled on the jurisdiction issues that pertained to the storage program and determined that a trial court would hear the merits of the case. The WRD issued a press release last week that called this ruling a victory. Casey explained why his client, the WRD, hailed this as good news, even though the case still has to go before a judge.
“So, the victory that we claimed was exactly what we’ve been saying for three years– let us decide the merits of the proposal,” Casey said in an interview Tuesday. “Maybe we won’t win the merits. Maybe we won’t, but for God’s sakes don’t take another three years of taxpayer money raising procedural obstacles to hearing the merits of the proposal.”
Farfsing disputed whether there was any victory yet when it came to storage. “I don’t think we’re any closer to a solution than we were three or four years ago,” the city manager said. “Other than we’re working with the group of cities. Lakewood, Long Beach, Downey, Cerritos and Signal Hill have been meeting to basically see if we can come to a storage plan resolution.”
Casey further described how the WRD and most of the other entities in the West Coast and Central Basin have thrown their overall support behind the storage plan. He said that only two pumpers in the West Coast region opposed the storage plan while the rest in the West Coast and the majority of the Central Basin region (with exception of the Signal Hill, Downey, Cerritos and one other entity) favored the storage plan.
The WRD’s attorney also defended how the watermaster body would be structured, since not all the power of the watermaster would belong to the WRD. He explained that the watermaster body could be compared to a “bicameral” structure– one half of each watermaster body from each basin would include representatives appointed by the water association for that basin, and the other half of the watermaster body would include the WRD board to cover storage issues.
Casey acknowledged that legal disputes over water do tend to last longer than other disputes.
“But I will tell you, in my opinion, this is probably one of the longest running [ones] concerning storage,” Casey added. “Most other people work it out because they understand the win-win nature of it all, and that’s why…the vast majority of folks stuck with that mediated process that took [a] combined five years…the vast majority of people got it.”
The dispute with the three cities is not the only legal battle that the WRD is fighting, but the cost to hire lawyers to defend the agency against the cities’ suits has especially irked Albert Robles, who serves as the board president for the WRD. In an interview Wednesday morning, Robles lamented that both sides have spent an extraordinary amount to retain legal services.
“I believe that if the citizenry of Signal Hill, Cerritos and Downey were thoroughly informed as to what was going on and not given the spin that these attorneys and that these representatives are somehow so good at, that they would be shocked, that they would be absolutely shocked, as to what their cities are doing ‘in their best interest,’” Robles said, adding that only the attorneys are benefitting by earning “millions and millions of dollars.”
Casey emphasized the importance of the storage program. “It is by far the most cost-effective, by far the most environmental-friendly way to store water when we have wet years and pull it out during dry years,” he said, adding that “we need to have better storage mechanisms in this state if residents of Signal Hill or residents of any city want to be assured of a safe, reliable high-quality supply of water for years and years and years.”
While he criticized the plan that the WRD supports, Farfsing did acknowledge the importance of water storage for Signal Hill.
“Water is becoming more expensive and more unreliable in California,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I think having additional storage would be beneficial to the community during rainier periods where we’d be able to store water to use during droughts.”

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