Family’s 18-Year Fight With County Over Water Rights Tossed

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Sealing a baffling fight over a ditch that involved dead cows, helicopters and a criminal trial, a federal judge ruled Tuesday that a California county didn’t trample a rural cattle rancher’s civil rights in its curious attempt to sabotage his water rights.

In the latest from a nearly 20-year war over water rights between Irvine Leen and Butte County officials, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley dismissed Leen’s civil rights lawsuit without leave to amend.

(Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay)

The dispute started in 2003, when the county filed a criminal complaint against Leen for clearing out debris like tires, car batteries and brush from an irrigation canal on his ranch. They accused Leen of restoring the stream bed without a permit and even though it was later revealed Leen did in fact own vested water rights, the case proceeded to trial in 2011.

More than seven years after charges were filed, a jury delivered swift justice by acquitting Leen in a matter of hours.

Seeking retribution, Leen responded with a lawsuit against a batch of parties and departments that investigated his property in Oroville, approximately 90 miles northwest of Sacramento. He and his wife claim the county tried to interfere with their attempt to gain an updated permit by sending false information to state regulators, even after the criminal tried had concluded.

Leen says county officials led by District Attorney Michael Ramsey ramped up their pursuit and made several low-flying helicopter flights over the property, circling and taking pictures of the ditch just weeks after the trial ended. He claims Ramsey’s office sent the photographs to state regulators along with backhanded emails falsely claiming the Leens were “rebuilding a dam.”

The ditch is mainly fed by agricultural runoff from surrounding farms and often becomes stagnant in the summer months.

The Leens’ struggle to secure their water rights finally ended in 2013, when the water board approved their petition to fix a mistake on the water license.

But the Leens’ quest for civil retribution stalled in 2015, when Judge Nunley ruled their claims were barred by a statute of limitations and they didn’t prove their water license was federally protected. The plaintiffs quickly appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and in 2017 a three-judge panel remanded the case back to Nunley for a closer look.

On Tuesday, the Barack Obama appointee again dismissed the Leens’ case and dashed their due process and equal protection claims.

Nunley, who previously cast the defendants’ prosecution of Leen as “unnecessarily vigorous,” held the complaint lacked clarity and was filled with unconvincing allegations. He noted that any Californian, public official or not, has the right to protest water rights petitions like the one filed by the Leens.

“As a whole, it does not shock the conscience that county prosecutors and [state employees] filed protests, investigated Leen’s property, threatened to ‘aggressively prosecute’ illegal acts, and informed the State Water Board about the investigation,” Nunley said in his latest ruling.

The emotional and economic strain of fighting the county ultimately wore on the Leens, and they have since left California for Idaho. They claim to have lost a heifer and a calf in the ditch due to the county’s restrictions and spent over $600,000 in attorneys’ fees — and made over 70 court appearances — during the combined 18-year court battles. The Leens’ attorneys didn’t respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert said he was pleased with Nunley’s order but hinted the ditch dispute could continue.

“Plaintiffs have appealed before and we would not be surprised if they filed another appeal,” Alpert said in an email.

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