Appeals Court Rules Farm Has Rights to Divert Water from River

In a reversal of the original ruling in the Superior Court of Sacramento County, Presiding Justice Vance W. Raye, along with Judge Ronald B. Robie, and Judge Harold E Hull ruled that Heather Robinson Tanaka has the right to divert water from the Middle River onto her 106-acre parcel of farming land. The initial lawsuit was filed against Tanaka in 2011 by the Modest Irrigation District, represented by O’Laughlin & Paris.

Tanaka, represented by Freeman Firm, appealed the initial decision made in favor of the Modesto Irrigation District. California “riparian rights principles” hold that owners of land contiguous to a river or other body of water have the right to divert water to use on that land. This law is derived from English common law. Tanaka’s great-grandfather purchased a parcel of land which was part of a riparian tract, but the section did not border the river.

“Clearly, riparian rights can persist in land sold under such circumstances, though the grantee cannot acquire riparian rights any greater than those held by the grantor.  The question in the case of such a transfer is whether the parties intended the grantee to receive riparian rights,” the opinion stated. The trial court ruling in the case concluded from the language of the deed that the sale of land to Tanaka’s great-grandfather did not give riparian rights, and Tanaka had no right to divert water onto the land.

Tanaka’s grandfather, Isaac Robinson, Jr., helped to dig the Woods-Robinson-Vasquez canal from the Middle River to his farm and other adjacent parcels, allowing his granddaughter who purchased the farm after his death to continue to pump water through the canal to her farm.

Although the opinion said it is true that the deed does not explicitly state that Robinson would retain riparian rights, historical records and consideration of the time and place of the sale provide additional insights. They said there is also no evidence that Robinson Sr. would purchase the farm without water rights, nor that the mortgage holders would try to cut off the rights which would not have benefited them financially. 

The appeals court ruled that the language in the deed showed a desire to include everything, including the rights to the Middle River, specifically looking at the phrase stating “together with all and singular the tenements, hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging.” The decision said riparian rights have been considered hereditaments in previous court cases.