Landowners file lawsuit over new groundwater tax 

The first lawsuit over the new assessment fee to fund the local government agency tasked with sustaining groundwater has been filed in Colusa County Superior Court. 

Jeanmarie McCullough, representing the McCullough and Barthels family trusts, filed the complaint Aug. 2, asking the court to invalidate the operation fee for the Colusa Groundwater Authority. 

The Colusa Groundwater Authority is a Joint Powers Agreement between Colusa County, the cities of Williams and Colusa, and local water and reclamation districts tasked with the state mandate of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, singed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, to develop a plan to sustain groundwater as a defense against climate change and drought.

Colusa County landowners are slated to pay an additional $1.21 per acre in property taxes beginning with their December tax bills in order to provide about $500,000 a year to the CGA for operational expenses of the agency, building reserves, and for their legal defense fund, officials said at a Proposition 218 public hearing on June 5. 

The new tax passed with just 2.2 percent of the 5,647 parcel owners who received a ballot casting a protest vote. The majority of those who did protest own property in the Colusa County foothills where groundwater is scarce and does not support the kind of agriculture production (income) seen on the valley floor. 

Protesting landowners, including those who filed the lawsuit, claim the operations fee is not a lawful assessment because the CGA did not identify the special benefits conferred upon the parcels subject to the fee, nor was the operations fee apportioned so that the amount charged to a parcel would not exceed the reasonable cost or expenses to be funded.

The plaintiffs own 3,110 acres (eight parcels) of rough, unimproved terrain and rangeland in western Colusa County, with two wells that produce an extremely low volume of water (five gallons per minute). The $3,763.10 in new assessments for CGA operations is comparable to doubling the existing taxes and fees associated with the property, according to the lawsuit. 

The plaintiffs claim the fee charged by the CGA is invalid because it was not approved by a popular vote of two-thirds of the electors who would be qualified to vote on the issue, nor was the fee imposed to recover the reasonable regulatory costs of “issuing licenses and permits, performing investigations, inspections, audits, or enforcing agriculture marketing orders.”

The plaintiffs claim the operation fee “cannot be imposed for any future, potential services of the CGA, but must be attributed to services actually used by, or immediately available to, the owners of the parcels subject to the fee.”

The plaintiffs, who claim the assessment will cause “great and irreparable injury” to the property owners are asking the court to invalidate the CGA assessment fee. They are also asking for a temporary restraining order, preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, and recovery for the cost of the lawsuit and attorney fees. 

Officials for the Colusa Groundwater Authority did not return a request from this newspaper for comment. 

A status conference on the complaint will be held in Colusa County Superior Court on Dec. 2. ■