California Studies Association

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Patricia McBroom on Public Trust Doctrine Lawsuit over California Water

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Patricia McBroom, in her blog, The California Spigot, has published an article (March 23) on how environmental groups have filed a potentially revolutionary lawsuit based on the “ancient doctrine” of “public trust” to challenge the privatization of water rights in the Sacramento Delta. The suit is against California’s water agencies: the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and the Department of Water Resources (DWR). The environmentalists charge that water officials have violated the public trust by allowing so much water to be pumped out of the Delta that fish and wildlife, aesthetics, recreation and water quality are being damaged or destroyed.

From the article:

Basing a lawsuit on the ancient doctrine [of public trust] is rare.  Only a few have been won, but when they are successful, a public trust case transforms the relationship between private and public interests in regard to natural resources.  Such a ground-breaking decision was made by the California Supreme Court in 1983 to preserve Mono Lake near Yosemite. The Court ruled that the Los Angeles Water District had to stop taking water from the streams that fed Mono because the lake was being irreparably damaged by the diversions.  The current delta lawsuit is based on that decision.

As it has evolved since Roman times, the doctrine preserves certain waterways for use by the public, setting up a fundamental right that cannot easily be restricted by private ownership.  Such rights include use of lakes, streams, tidal lands and other natural resources linked to water.
To read the whole article, click here.
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