Friday, July 29, 2016

Clearwater Farms LLC v. Giles

The Utah Court of Appeal recently issued a decision in the case of Clearwater Farms LLC v. Giles. The case involves a dispute between two neighboring landowners regarding alleged interference with an irrigation water system. (The case also involves a dispute between the landowners regarding an easement for a road, which is not discussed herein.)

In 1996, the Gileses purchased a piece of farmland next to the Spanish Fork River. About two years later, Morley purchased a piece of farmland north of and adjacent to the Gileses' property. A year later, the Gileses divided their property into two parcels and constructed a home on each parcel. A ditch crossed the Gileses' property and conveyed irrigation water to the Morley property. Due to increased difficulty conveying water through the ditch, the Gileses allowed Morley to construct an electric pump and pump house on the Gileses' property, which was attached to a 6-inch pipeline that was buried in the location of the old ditch. Morley used this water system until approximately 2003, when he installed a diesel pump and new pump house on his own property. The 6-inch pipeline on the Gileses' property was no longer used, but remained in place.

Clearwater purchased the Morley property in 2010 with the intent of building homes on the property. In 2011, Clearwater sought to remove the 6-inch pipe on the Gileses' property and replace it with a 42-inch pipe, but the Gileses opposed the larger pipe, including calling the sheriff and posting no trespassing signs on the old pump house. In 2012, the parties were able to reach an agreement to allow an easement across the Gileses' property for utilities and water pipelines. But Clearwater filed suit claiming damages for being unable to irrigate during the 2011 season. The district court concluded that Clearwater was not entitled to damages for lost crop revenue because the Gileses had not obstructed Clearwater's water rights. Clearwater appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals.

Clearwater asserted claims under two statutes: Utah Code sections 73-1-15 and 73-1-7. The Court first reviewed Clearwater's claims under section 73-1-15, which provides that "it shall be unlawful for any person to place or maintain in place any obstruction, or change of the water flow by fence or otherwise, along or across or in such canal or watercourse." The Court concluded that the statute's language requires a physical barrier or obstruction to be placed in the ditch or water system that is in contact with the water and actually changes the water's flow. The court therefore determined that the Gileses actions of refusing to cooperate, calling the sheriff, and posting no trespassing signs did not amount to "obstructions" under the statute; rather, they were "more like the mere assertion of a contrary legal position." The court also noted that Clearwater had a relatively speedy way to resolve the issue through a motion for a temporary restraining order, which Clearwater failed to pursue.

The Court next reviewed Clearwater's claims under section 73-1-7, which provides a water user with a right to enlarge another person's existing ditch or canal to carry additional water. Clearwater asserted that this statute evidenced a public policy favoring the ability of a party to increase the size of a ditch or pipeline. The court noted that in 2011, the statute had been substantially amended, which included a clarification that the statute only applied to ditches and canals, but not pipelines. But the pre-2011 statute was at issue, and the Court therefore had to determine if the pre-2011 language of the statute extended to and included pipelines. The Court concluded that it did not, because the plain meaning of the term "ditch" does not encompass an enclosed pipe. The Court also again noted that the Gileses' actions did not impede Clearwater from exercising the rights that Clearwater asserted it had.

Based on these determinations, the Court affirmed the decision of the district court in favor of the Gileses.

To read the full text of the opinion, click here.

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