In an important water rights ruling, the state Supreme Court has held that farmers' long-standing water rights superceded water claims by downstream cities. The unanimous court ruled in favor of seven alfalfa and dairy farmers in the Mojave Valley that had refused to join a pact that allocated water to more than 200 farmers, cities and other entities without regard to historical water rights.

"This preserves the farmers' position at basically the top of the water chain," Robert Dougherty, the attorney for the farmers, told the Associated Press. "Cities do take a back seat." In the Mojave Valley, nearly everyone relies on the same water source — the Mojave River, which flows mostly underground.

The combination of urban development and desert farming has overdrawn the groundwater supply for decades, causing supply and quality problems for those in some parts of the basin. Ten years ago, the City of Barstow and the Southern California Water Company sued the Mojave Water Agency, the City of Adelanto and other upstream entities. Barstow claimed that the upstream users were hurting its water supply by overpumping. The Mojave Water Agency then filed its own suit against nearly all water users in the basin. The trial court stayed the litigation while the parties worked out a stipulated settlement, or "physical solution," that called for reducing water usage over several years.

Nearly everyone agreed to the 1996 settlement, which followed the doctrine of "equitable apportionment" without regard to preexisting rights. The trial court imposed the settlement on all parties, but seven farmers, led by alfalfa farmer Manuel Cardoza, appealed. The Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled for the farmers, holding that the trial court could not ignore preexisting water rights. (See CP&DR Legal Digest, July 1998.)

In affirming that ruling, Justice Ming Chin wrote for the state's high court: "Although it is clear that a trial court may impose a physical solution to achieve a practical allocation of water to competing interests, the solution's general purpose cannot ignore the priority rights of the parties asserting them." A court cannot change priorities among the holders of water rights or eliminate vested rights, as the trial court did, Chin wrote. Justice Chin cited California Water Service Co. v Edward Sidebotham & Son, (1964) 224 Cal.App.2d 715: "The first one in time is the first one in right, and a prior appropriator in entitled to all the water he needs, up to the amount he has taken in the past, before a subsequent appropriator may take any."

However, the Supreme Court also upheld the appellate court's ruling in favor of the stipulated settlement. The stipulating parties can waive or alter their water rights in a manner they believe in their best interest, the state's high court held. That portion of the ruling provided satisfaction for the cities and water districts.

"As a practical matter, we have groundwater management throughout the region," James Markman, an attorney for the Hesperia Water District, told the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

The Cases: City of Barstow v. Mojave Water Agency, No. S071728; Mojave Water Agency v. Manuel Cardoza, Nos. E018023, E018681, 00 C.D.O.S. 6973, 2000 Daily Journal D.A.R. 9265, filed August 21, 2000.

The Lawyers: For Barstow: Arthur Kidman, Kidman, McCormick & Behrens, (714) 755-3100.

For Mojave Water Agency: William Brunick, Brunick, Alvarez & Battersby, (909) 889-8301.

For Cardoza: Robert Dougherty, Covington & Crowe, (909) 983-9393.