Groundwater Pumpers Beware: The Public Trust Doctrine is Lurking

The Third District Appellate Court recently issued a long-awaited decision in Environmental Law Foundation vs. State Water Resources Control Board (ELF v. SWRCB). The decision confirms the expansive scope of California’s public trust doctrine by ruling that the doctrine applies to the extraction of groundwater if the extraction will adversely impact a navigable waterway. The court also determined that the 2014 enactment of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) did not displace the common law duty to consider public trust interests before allowing groundwater extractions that could potentially harm a navigable waterway. The case arose in the context of a lawsuit over Siskiyou County’s (the County) obligations in administering groundwater well permit and management programs with respect to the Scott River, a navigable waterway tributary to the Klamath River. The Scott River is a public trust resource.
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