Abatti v. Imperial Irrigation Dist.Annotate this Case
The Imperial Irrigation District (District) supplied water from the Colorado River system to California's Imperial Valley, holding its water rights in trust for the benefit of its users, and was empowered by California law to manage the water supply for irrigation and other beneficial uses. In 2013, the District implemented an equitable distribution plan with an annual water apportionment for each category of users (2013 EDP). Michael Abatti presently owns and farms land in the Imperial Valley. Abatti, as trustee of the Michael and Kerri Abatti Family Trust, and Mike Abatti Farms, LLC (collectively, Abatti) filed a petition for writ of mandate to invalidate the 2013 EDP on the grounds that, among other things, the farmers possess water rights that entitle them to receive water sufficient to meet their reasonable irrigation needs—and the plan unlawfully and inequitably takes away these rights. Abatti's position, fairly construed, is that farmers are entitled to receive the amounts of water that they have historically used to irrigate their crops. The District contended the farmers possessed a right to water service, but not to specific amounts; the District was required to distribute water equitably to all users, not just to farmers; and that the 2013 DEP allowed the District to do so, while fulfilling its other obligations, such as conservation. The superior court granted the petition, entering a declaratory judgment that prohibited the District from distributing water in the manner set forth in the 2013 EDP, and required the District to use a historical method for any apportionment of water to farmers. The District appealed, and Abatti cross-appealed an earlier order sustaining the District's demurrer to his claims that the District's adoption of the 2013 EDP constitutes a breach of its fiduciary duty to farmers and a taking. The Court of Appeal concluded the farmers within the District possessed an equitable and beneficial interest in the District's water rights, which was appurtenant to their lands. "Although the superior court acknowledged certain of these principles, its rulings reflect that it took an unduly narrow view of the District's purposes, thus failing to account for the District's broader obligations, and took an overly expansive view of the rights of farmers." The superior court was directed to enter a new judgment: (1) granting the petition on ground that the District's failure to provide for equitable apportionment among categories of water users constituted an abuse of discretion; and (2) denying the petition on all other grounds, including as to declaratory relief.