The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association Wins a Landmark Case Protecting Rivers & Groundwater in California

Creative Commons Pacific Southwest Region USFWS

LDF partners Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association (PCFFA), the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), and Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) won a landmark case requiring counties to protect rivers, along with their habitat and species, from over-pumping at wells adjacent river. The California Appellate Court’s unanimous decision sets a precedent by extending public trust protections to interconnected groundwater and requiring the adoption of these protections right away. 

The case focuses on the Scott River, a tributary of one of California’s largest rivers, the Klamath River, which was once teaming with coho and chinook salmon. Neighboring Native American tribes subsisted on these fish for generations before portions of the river began to run dry every summer. Dewatering occurred as early as 1979, prompting the Legislature to prohibit the placement of wells within 500 feet of the river’s edge. As farming grew and more wells were drilled to pump water for irrigation, fishermen began to lose their catch to over-pumping again. 

With the latest science, PCFFA showed that groundwater was connected to the river far beyond the 500 foot boundary and that unregulated pumping would further damage the river.  The Court agreed with the science dispelling a long-held legal fiction that surface waters in rivers are not connected to groundwater in aquifers. The Court took this finding a step further and determined that because the Public Trust Doctrine establishes in the State and Counties a duty to protect public trust resources like rivers, tributaries, habitat and species, then the duty should naturally extend to interconnected groundwater.

While the parties were going through the motions of litigation, the Legislature enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), creating the state’s first groundwater management regulation. Defendant Siskyou County jumped on the opportunity to argue that SGMA was now the law of the land and it could dispense with its public trust duties. The benefit of SGMA’s duty is that it does not require groundwater managers to achieve sustainability for twenty years. The court rejected this argument concluding that “SGMA does not…occupy the field, replace or fulfill public trust duties, or scuttle decades of decisions upholding, defending, and expanding the public trust doctrine.”

Though the case focused on the Scott River, the law applies to watersheds across the state that are harmed by unregulated pumping of groundwater wells. 

PCFFA is the largest association of commercial fishermen on the West Coast. Since 1976, it has led the industry in protecting the rights of fishermen and fishing communities to maintain a productive livelihood and way of life. IFR is responsible for carrying out the fishery research and conservation needs of working fishing men and women. ELF protects the environment, communities, and consumers against harmful toxics.  

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