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A Mojave Pistachios orchard south of Inyokern is lush with new growth, a result of the massive amount of recent rainfall. / Laura Austin Photo

Court of Appeal sides with Mojave Pistachios; issues order to show cause

Stutzman Public Affairs Kelly Garman–The Fourth Appellate District, Court of Appeal issued an order last week compelling the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (IWVGA) to show cause as to why the Court should not grant Mojave Pistachios’ petition for writ of mandate in its legal action challenging the IWVGA’s Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). Mojave’s petition asks the court to rule on questions of state-wide importance, including that pumping allocations adopted by groundwater sustainability agencies like the IWVGA must be consistent with California groundwater rights law.

In 2020, Mojave filed suit against the IWVGA, asking the court to invalidate the IWVGA’s unconstitutional GSP and actions implementing the GSP and requesting more than $255,000,000 in damages. This action came after the IWVGA gave Mojave a zero groundwater allocation. The complaint alleges, among other contentions, that the IWVGA misused the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in an attempt to eradicate agriculture from the Indian Wells Valley.

Mojave filed its petition for writ of mandate to the Court of Appeal in February after the trial court agreed with the IWVGA’s argument that Mojave Pistachios should not be allowed to challenge the IWVGA’s pumping allocations or prove up its takings case against the IWVGA. Appellate courts rarely grant writ relief; approximately 90-95 percent of petitions for writ of mandate are summarily denied.

The California Farm Bureau, Western Growers Association and Searles Valley Minerals each filed an amicus letter with the Court in support of Mojave’s petition. In its letter, Western Growers Association states “We believe that the trial court order in this case is contrary to SGMA and undermines the longstanding rights of landowners.”

Last week’s order gives the IWVGA an opportunity to submit a formal response brief and the parties may then request oral argument. Further, the order also stays the trial court case pending a further order from the Court of Appeal.

Established in 2011, Mojave Pistachios farms approximately 1,600 acres of pistachios near Ridgecrest, California.

By Patricia Farris News Review Publisher– Attorney Elizabeth Esposito, who represents Mojave Pistachios, told The News Review that this press release specifically relates to the court’s order to show cause. “We had filed a writ of mandate challenging the GA’s pumping allocations giving Mojave Pistachios zero water. Mojave Pistachios challenged the allocation as this is considered a taking of Mojave Pistachios without just compensation. The GA argued with the court, saying that Mojave Pistachios should not be allowed to challenge the allocation as taking the property without just compensation. We believe that the courts were wrong. Mojave Pistachios filed a petition for a writ of mandate in February. The Court of Appeal allowed the GA to write a formal response. Last week the court issued an order to show cause, directing the GA to demonstrate to the court as to why the court should not grant Mojave Pistachios’ petition. The Court of Appeals sees something of merit in the Mojave Pistachios petition. There will be more briefs. Finally. Sometimes the Court of Appeal, with three trial judges, will make a decision.”

By adopting the challenged Annual Pumping Allocation in Ordinance Number 32-20, the GA has picked winners and targeted losers by granting many users but not Mojave Pistachios. Even in its briefing, the GA admits it has acted as judge and jury, evaluated Mojave’s claims to water rights, and declined to issue an allocation on the basis of its water rights judgments. The GA touts the Department of Water Resources (DWR) approval of its GSP; however, DWR found that the Groundwater Sustainability Plan does not fully satisfy the requirements of DWR regulations and identified numerous corrective actions. DWR refused to endorse the legal adequacy of the GSP.

There were three letters of support of Mojave Pistachios’ petition; The California Farm Bureau, Western Growers Association, and Searles Valley Minerals. “One of Farm Bureau’s concerns as the SGMA legislation formed was that it work no disruption of the long-standing fabric of common law as it pertained to groundwater rights, a body of law that ultimately underpins California’s agricultural landscape and economy. That concern was answered with the enactment of Water Code section 10720.5(b), which provides that a groundwater management plan does not determine or alter common-law groundwater rights.”