San Bernardino Water Fight Spills Into Court

     SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. (CN) - Breaching decades-old court orders, a company pumped up to four times more water from the Rialto-Colton basin than its entitled allotment, several entities claim in court.
     The 37-page complaint describes the dispute as rooted in a 1961 decree that determined the amount of water agencies are permitted to pump from underground water basins in San Bernardino County.
     With water in the valley running low the decade prior, the California Department of Water Resources had taken legal action to secure the rights and make up shortfalls with imported water.
     The 1961 court decree set up "a self-correcting plan" to protect the Rialto-Colton sub-basin, "allowing unlimited extraction during wet years, capped extractions during normal years and reduced extractions during dry years," according to the complaint from San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District, the cities of Colton and Rialto, Calif., and West Valley Water District.
     "When all parties complied with this decree, water levels in the basin grew from historic lows to record highs in a matter of just over 10 years," the lawsuit states.
     The court order limits the amount of water agencies are allowed to pump from the Rialto-Colton basin when the average spring-high water level in the basin is 969.7 feet above mean sea level and 1002.3 feet above mean sea level, the complaint says.
     Investor-owned San Gabriel Valley Water Co. dba Fontana Water allegedly gets around this condition, however, by "artificially creating a space they call 'No Man's Land' and installing wells that extract water in excess of the rights set forth in the 1961 decree."
     The districts identified that area in a statement as a "1,600-foot wide sliver of land" not covered under court orders.
     "Defendants' excessive and unreasonable extractions caused a precipitous fall in water levels in the basin, triggering the limits and reductions required by the court decree," the lawsuit says.
     Two 1969 judgments set limits on water rights in the San Ana River's upper and lower watershed, the district notes. But Fontana taps groundwater in excess of those limits without paying the cost to replace reserves of water Inland Empire residents rely on during periods of drought, according to the complaint.
     The water district wants Fontana enjoined from pumping more groundwater than that to which it is entitled, plus damages. They allege breach of contract, conversion, trespass and other counts.
     "San Gabriel Valley Water Company has not been paying for the water it is extracting beyond the amounts established in longstanding water rights agreements, which forces other cities and water agencies and their customers to absorb the costs of replacing the groundwater that San Gabriel Valley Water Company is selling," San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District president Pat Milligan said in a statement.
     The cities and water districts are represented by David Aladjem with Downey Brand of Sacramento, Calif.
     Fontana did not immediately respond to a request for comment.