Sacramento Superior Court Finds State Water Resources Control Board Fees Not Fairly Distributed Among Permit Holders

In 2003, the California Legislature shifted funding sources for certain State Water Resources Control Board activities, and mandated the board assess fees at a level sufficient to collect for the appropriate board work. The Legislature only authorized fees on water rights permit and license holders, rather than all water users, so the board assessed fees only on those groups. The California Farm Bureau Federation and the Northern California Water Association sued, claiming the board was imposing an unconstitutional tax because permit holders bore a disproportionate amount of the fee relative to benefits received. In 2011, the California Supreme Court upheld the fee statutes as facially constitutional, but remanded the matter to determine their constitutionality “as applied” by the board.

In California Farm Bureau Federation v. State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento County Superior Court Case No. 03CS01776, the court found that the allocation of fees among actual and potential payors was invalid given the insufficient connection between the amount charged and benefits received.

The court found that the fees were reasonably related to the total costs of the Division of Water Rights’ regulatory program, and that the petitioners had not carried their burden to prove otherwise. But following 10 days of testimony taken in late 2012, the court analyzed whether the fees were properly allocated among actual payors (those holding licenses and permits) and potential payors (those not paying the fee but receiving benefits from the division’s activities).

The petitioners argued that the fee scheme was not fair or reasonable because no fees were assessed against the holders of approximately 38% of the total acre-feet of California water rights under the board’s jurisdiction, including those holding riparian, pueblo, and pre-1914 rights, none of which are subject to the permit and license process. Although these holders received benefits from the board’s Water Rights Division, the board had no statutory authority to impose fees on them. The court held that it was improper for the board to shift those fees to other permit holders to make up the deficiency. To do so would force permit and license holders to pay more than a de minimis amount for regulatory activities benefitting non-paying water rights holders and the general public.

The court also found that requiring Central Valley Project contractors to cover payments for all of the Bureau of Reclamation’s permits and licenses was invalid because it did not reflect the true beneficial interests of the contractors. The Bureau, which holds 22% of the total permitted or licensed water rights in California, claimed exemption from the board’s fees under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. To compensate, the board imposed fees on the recipient contractors (various irrigation and water storage agencies) based on a prorated portion of the total volume of water represented by the Bureau’s permits and licenses. The court stated that this method would be valid only if it represented a fair assessment of the recipient contractors’ actual beneficial interests in the Bureau’s water rights. The court found that while some of the Bureau’s water could be fairly attributed to the value of its project  delivery contracts, it did not follow that all of the water benefitted the contractors. (For example, Bureau project water is also released for environmental and water quality purposes.) Because the board had conducted no analysis of the contractors’ beneficial or possessory interest in the permits for the Bureau’s largest operation, the Central Valley Project, the court held the allocation unconstitutional.

The petitioners also established that for at least some payors, the fee regulations operated in an arbitrary manner, charging some permit holders multiple times for the same water.

The board was afforded one small victory: The court allowed the $100 minimum annual fee per permit  to stand. But as the court observed, the petitioners had never really presented any evidence concerning the minimum annual fee; the Court of Appeal had okayed it, and the Supreme Court had not addressed it.

The trial court stayed the board’s enforcement of its 2003-2004 regulations. Because the regulations have been modified over the years, the regulations for the period 2005-2013 may need further review. Under the stay agreement, subsequent proceedings will address the issue of whether permit and license holders that have been paying the fees under protest since 2003 should receive refunds for overpayment.