Thursday, August 2, 2012

Magna Water Company v. Strawberry Water Users Association

The Utah Court of Appeals recently issued its opinion in the case of Magna Water Company v. Strawberry Water Users Association.  This case relates to rights use return flow of imported water from the Strawberry Valley Project.

The Strawberry Valley Project is a federal project that imports water from the Colorado River drainage into the Utah Lake basin.  When the water is used for irrigation and other purposes, a portion of the water returns to the natural hydrological system, generally through seepage into the groundwater aquifer or as surface runoff to streams and lakes. Both the federal government and the Strawberry Water Users Association ("SWUA") claim the right to recapture and reuse this return flow after it commingles with the natural hydrological system.

SWUA petitioned the district court for an interlocutory decree regarding use of the return flow in the general adjudication of the Utah Lake and Jordan River drainage. The State Engineer issued a proposed determination supporting the recapture and reuse of the Strawberry Valley Project water.  Magna Water Company and others ("the Objectors") filed an objection to the proposed determination, asserting that the State Engineer's recommendations in the proposed determination departed from Utah law and that Objectors' water rights and interests would be adversely affected. The district court ruled that the Objectors lacked standing, and therefore could not participate in the court proceedings.  Accordingly, the court dismissed the Objectors' claims.  The Objectors then appealed to the Utah Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals first examined whether the Objectors had "traditional standing."  The Court held that the Objectors did not meet the first prong of the traditional standing test, which is the showing of a distinct and palpable injury.  The Objectors had argued that the recapture and reuse of return flow would result in reduced diversions from the Objectors' wells.  The Court, however, concluded that the Objectors' wells were upgradient from and not affected by Utah Lake and the Jordan River. Thus, the Court upheld the district court's determination that the Objectors had failed to show injury, and were therefore not entitled to traditional standing.

The Court of Appeals next examined whether the Objectors had "alternative standing."  The test for alternative standing is that the party must show that it is an appropriate person to raise issues of significant public importance.  The Court determined that the Objectors were appropriate persons because they had the interest necessary to effectively assist the court in developing and reviewing relevant factual and legal issues.  The Court also determined that the recapture and reuse recommendations contained in the proposed determination were of significant public importance because many water users will be affected by the proposed determination and because the recapture and reuse issues are uncharted areas of law in Utah. Thus, the Court held the Objectors had alternative standing.

In the end, the Court of Appeals held that the district court had erred in dismissing the Objectors' claims, and the case was sent back to the district court for further proceedings, with the Objectors' participation.

To read the full opinion, click here.

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