Who owns groundwater? Lawsuit seeks to answer the question

June 21, 2019By Christina Cox

A case making its way through Santa Barbara County Superior Court is challenging the amount of water farm owners can pump from a groundwater basin that sits below Moorpark.

The lawsuit was filed more than a year ago, in March 2018, by a group of Ventura County landowners and agricultural business owners. The group claims that Fox Groundwater Management Agency, an entity that oversees groundwater basins in the area, overstepped its responsibilities as a supervisor of local water sources.

Specifically, the lawsuit deals with water rights in the Las Posas Groundwater Basin, a drainage area that encompasses 42,000 acres of land and extends from Simi Valley and Moorpark west to Camarillo.

Water pumped from the basin is distributed to residents in Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Camarillo and Moorpark, as well as unincorporated cities in the county.

From a bird’s-eye view, the lawsuit seeks to have a court allocate, or adjudicate, the water rights of the Las Posas Groundwater Basin.

The plaintiffs in the case, the agricultural business owners, argue that they have a priority right to the water based on their use of the resource for their fields and businesses. They have chosen to sue several water companies, ranches and cities, including Moorpark and Simi Valley, to gain access to the basin’s water rights.

The group of business owners is also challenging Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency’s claim that it is a sustainability agency, a group that works to preserve water.

“The state of California established Groundwater Sustainable Agencies during the drought as a way to manage groundwater, which was more heavily relied on during the drought,” Moorpark City Manager Troy Brown wrote in an email to the Acorn.

As part of its role as a sustainability agency, Fox Canyon limited the amount of water landowners could pump from the basin during the past five years. The move, the plaintiffs argue, was invalid and interfered with their water rights.

Because the water basin sits below Moorpark, nearly all of the city’s homeowners were mailed a copy of the lawsuit by JND Legal Administration, a firm specializing in class-action lawsuits. The 65-page notice was meant to inform the public about the existence of the lawsuit.

City officials said most of Moorpark’s homeowners get their water through Ventura County Waterworks, so they will not need to join the lawsuit to continue receiving service from the local water company.

Those residents who own a well on their property that feeds into the Las Posas Water Basin, however, may want to join the lawsuit to protect their individual water rights.

“Essentially, the notice was intended to inform people that if they are pumping water, or intend to pump water, the amount that is pumped could be impacted by this case,” Brown said.