50-Year-Old Decisions Still Providing Water Along the Santa Ana River Watershed

By on May 5, 2019

Two major lawsuits settled 50 years ago in Riverside and San Bernardino counties provides credence to Humorist Mark Twain’s saying: “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over!”

History tells us that more than 4,000 litigants were part of two major lawsuits filed in 1963 regarding surface water and groundwater pumping rights across the Santa Ana River Watershed. Although one lawsuit was filed by the Western Municipal Water District and the other by the Orange County Water District, the process was simplified by an agreement that four representative parties Western Municipal Water District (WMWD), Orange County Water District (OCWD), San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District (SBVMWD)and the Chino Basin Municipal Water District (now known as the Inland Empire Utilities Agency- IEUA) would be part of the lawsuit. Both lawsuits were resolved on April 17, 1969.

To celebrate what has become the peaceful operation of the Santa Ana River Watershed, some 100 people local leaders and community members recently gathered together along the Santa Ana River in Riverside county to celebrate the two 1969 court judgments for the water rights of the Santa Ana River that are still operational today. The two judgments became known as the 1969 Settlement.

Accomplishments over the last 50 years owe a great deal to the contributions made by the former and current members that have served on the watermaster committees. The 1969 Orange County Judgment provides water users in the lower basin rights to receive minimum and average water flows, measured at several locations throughout the watershed. SBVMWD, WMWD and IEUA are required to maintain minimum base flow requirements. The Western-San Bernardino Judgment laid out a framework for dividing water resources in the San Bernardino Basin Area, Colton Basin and Riverside Basin in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

The four agencies – IEUA, OCWD, SBVMWD and WMWD — continue to work together and are known as the Santa Ana River Watermaster and Western-San Bernardino Watermaster committees. Both committees are required to submit annual reports to the court to demonstrate compliance with the 1969 Settlement Judgments.

“There is a lot that goes into ensuring a reliable water supply,” said Paul Hofer, Inland Empire Utilities Agency board president. “As a resident within the Santa Ana Watershed, you can rest assured that the water you need every day will get to you because of the decisions and judgments that were put in place 50 years ago.”

The Santa Ana River is the largest river in Southern California beginning in the San Bernardino Mountains and flowing downstream to Prado Dam in Riverside County, into Orange County and out into the Pacific Ocean. The river meanders 96 miles through a very diverse terrain including alpine forest, arid desert, chaparral environments and flat coastal plains.

At the celebratory event, one of the original watermasters, Don Harriger, submitted comments to be read to attendees. His comments read, “Businesses and residents throughout the watershed have benefited greatly from the peaceful coexistence of water interests and the many water infrastructure improvements in water reliability and water quality that have resulted.”

The multi-agency cooperation in the Santa Ana River Watershed allows for the ability to secure water supplies for urban uses while also mitigating environmental impacts. The settlement also allows for agency actions and governance as well as the needed flexibility for future changes in hydrology. The original stakeholders — engineers, attorneys, water professionals and others — anticipated potential future changes and executed a document that could be amended and provides the flexibility that has allowed the settlement to maintain peace over the last 50 years and anticipates the same peaceful existence for the next 50 years.

“Hope springs eternal,” Art Baggett, the master of ceremonies for the event and water law attorney familiar with the 1969 judgment, said. “Here’s to another 50 years of peace, cooperation and collaboration on the Santa Ana River.”