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Law School Case Brief

Nat'l Audubon Soc'y v. Superior Court - 33 Cal. 3d 419, 189 Cal. Rptr. 346, 658 P.2d 709 (1983)


The state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible. As a matter of practical necessity the state may have to approve appropriations despite foreseeable harm to public trust uses. In so doing, however, the state must bear in mind its duty as trustee to consider the effect of the taking on the public trust and to preserve, so far as consistent with the public interest, the uses protected by the trust. Any member of the general public has standing to raise a claim of harm to the public trust. 


Petitioners filed a suit to enjoin the city water department from diverting water from a lake. Petitioners asserted that the lake was protected by the public trust. Respondent trial court ruled that the public trust doctrine offered no independent basis for challenging the diversions and that petitioners had failed to exhaust administrative remedies. Thereafter, petitioners sought a writ of mandate to review that decision. The superior court entered summary judgment against them, and they appealed.


Does public trust right exist in water diversions from the lake?




The Supreme Court of California held that diversions from the streams feeding the lake were modified by the public trust doctrine. Although the granted diversions had been made with great care taken, to comply with both prior appropriation and riparian law, the court found that public trust rights in the lake had always existed and must be accommodated when consumptive water rights were granted.  Environmental factors, as wells as appropriation rights, must be taken into account when conducting a study of the effect of the diversions on the public trust. The public trust doctrine and the appropriative water rights system are parts of an integrated system of water law. The public trust doctrine serves the function in that integrated system of preserving the continuing sovereign power of the state to protect public trust uses, a power which precludes anyone from acquiring a vested right to harm the public trust, and imposes a continuing duty on the state to take such uses into account in allocating water resources. The Court issued a peremptory writ of mandate issue that commanded the trial court to vacate its judgment and to enter a new judgment.

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