June 01, 2016

The Expansion of the Public Trust Doctrine in an Era of Resource Scarcity: Have We Reached the Tipping Point?

Arielle O. Harris and Christian L. Marsh

The California Supreme Court’s 1983 decision in National Audubon v. Superior Court, 658 P.2d 709 (Cal. 1983), signaled a dramatic shift in the duties and obligations of California public agencies under the public trust doctrine. That shift, however, never fully materialized—until now. Recently, California has experienced a surge in the volume of cases interpreting and applying the public trust doctrine, with approximately 10 appellate decisions published since 2008. In many of these cases, plaintiffs have attempted to extend the doctrine beyond its historical bounds, with varying degrees of success. In 2014, for example, a trial court extended the doctrine for the first time to regulate withdrawals of groundwater.

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