Forbes v. Forbes

Forbes v. Forbes, 341 P.3d 1041 (Wyo. 2015) (holding: i) water rights are real property that parties must disclose during discovery proceedings; and ii) trustees cannot transfer water rights to individual trust members because it is not in the best interest of all beneficiaries).

Six members of the Forbes family formed the Beckton Ranch Trust (“BRT”) in 1920. The trust holds certain parcels of land with water and ditch rights in Sheridan County, Wyoming. Presently, the BRT has nineteen beneficiaries, and William “Cam” Forbes (“Cam”) is the acting trustee. Some time in 2009 or 2010, the Wyoming Board of Control (“WBC”) asked Cam to correct discrepancies between permitted water rights and actual water usage on BRT land. Acting as trustee, Cam filed four petitions for changes in place of use. In 2012, the WBC granted the petitions transferring the water rights onto Cam and his sister’s, Julia Forbes (“Julia”), land. Cam did not notify any of the other trust beneficiaries of the transfer. Citing other issues with his siblings’ management of the BRT, Cam’s brother, Waldo E. “Spike” Forbes (“Spike”) resigned as trustee and sued to remove the remaining trustees, alleging that they breached their duty of loyalty to the trust. Spike sought removal of his siblings as trustees of BRT. During discovery, Cam did not disclose the water rights transfers. Spike learned of them from another source during pretrial proceedings.

After the Sheridan County District Court removed Cam and Julia as trustees, the siblings appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court (“Court”). Cam and Julia argued that the trial court erred in removing them as trustees and finding that they profited from the transfer.

The Court held in favor of Cam and Julia because Spike did not include the water rights transfers in his original complaint for breach of loyalty, and he failed to amend his complaint to include the specific water rights claim. He thus did not give fair notice that the water rights were at issue. Because the trial court used the water rights exhibits as part of its decision to remove Cam and Julia as trustees, the Court found that the trustees did not have sufficient notice. The Court noted that the parties could have resolved the issue by asking for a continuance on the basis of the surprise evidence. Even though the defendant trustees did not ask for a continuance, they made numerous objections to the inclusion of the water rights transfers in evidence. The Court found this argument against their removal as trustees persuasive.

The Court did find that Spike should have disclosed the water rights transfers during discovery. The interrogatory that called for “details of all transactions of real property” included information regarding water rights of the BRT. The Court did not find that there was enough specificity in the pleading regarding the water rights to properly sanction Cam and Julia under the Wyoming Rules of Civil Procedure 37(c). Therefore, it declined to remove them as trustees of the BRT.

Next, the Court considered whether Cam’s transfer of water rights on behalf of himself and sister breached his duty of loyalty to the BRT beneficiaries. Because of the trust’s specific language, and Cam’s failure to distinguish between his own property and property held by the BRT, he did not manage the trust in the sole interest of the beneficiaries. The Court concluded that that self-dealing alone constituted a breach of the duty of loyalty. However, the Court noted that Cam’s breach of duty of loyalty did not warrant his removal as a trustee of the BRT.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the district court’s order removing Cam and Julia as trustees of the BRT.

Sarah Rice

Image: Thermopolis, Wyoming.  Flickr user m01229, Creative Commons.


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

 

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

THE HISTORY AND IMPORTANCE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS

The 2016 University of Denver Water Law Review Annual Symposium focused on the topic of Interstate Water Compacts, both past and present.  The first speaker, retired Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs, spoke on the history and importance of interstate water compacts, both in the United States as a whole and Colorado in particular.

Justice Hobbs began the Symposium by noting how interstate compacts illustrate the delicate mix of federalism that makes the United States unique.  His presentation centered around the story of Delphus Carpenter, a graduate of the Sturm College of Law and the father of the interstate water compacts created in Colorado.  Born in 1877, a year after Colorado became a state, Carpenter grew up in Greeley working the land.  After graduating law school, he became a practitioner in Greeley.  He was a strong believer in the prior appropriation doctrine.  Coloradans at that time, and settlers across the West, believed that they owned the water within their territories, but this view would soon prove incorrect.

Justice Hobbs noted the significance of 1902.,  During this year the Federal Reclamation Act took effect and Kansas sued Colorado over water rights in Kansas v. Colorado.  Moreover, both the Bureau of Reclamation and the Federal Government asserted that planned reclamation project should receive all unappropriated water.  Justice Hobbs explained that the states, including Colorado, were not happy with the situation that was developing in the West, a war of sorts for water rights.  In 1907, the Supreme Court finally issued its decision in Kansas v. Colorado, holding that a fact specific equitable apportionment analysis would control these types of disputes between states over water rights.  Justice Hobbs stated how Colorado “won” the first round of apportionment due to its settled agriculture across the state.

Next, Justice Hobbs discussed how the changing border of the United States in the late nineteenth century affected the development of water rights in the West, particularly in regards to Mexico.  At that time, homesteading was the philosophy of the West, and, when federal law granted a homestead it only included surface water rights.  Justice Hobbs asserted that this foreshadowed the eventual difficulty of adjudicating groundwater rights under interstate compacts.  Justice Hobbs remarked on the prescience of the framers of the Colorado Constitution, who declared that the water belonged to the public and the people.  This idea was part of the homestead philosophy, but had even deeper roots in the traditions of Native Americans who lived in the West long before Europeans had settled there.

Justice Hobbs then turned back to the story of  Carpenter.  He explained that Carpenter entered into this mix of uncertainty after graduating from law school.  Carpenter was a one term state senator.  Nonetheless, after he left office, the whole state of Colorado turned to him on a bipartisan basis to assist them in the growing number of disputes over waters within the state.  In 1908, the Supreme Court declared that the new reservations for Native Americans needed enough reserve water to sustain their populations and such water was not subject to any state doctrines.  Justice Hobbs discussed how it was a rude awakening for the states to learn that they did not own their own water.  Additionally, there was growing concern among the citizens of Colorado over lawsuits from downstream states.  At this time, Carpenter represented the Greeley Water District, and sought one hundred thousand acre-feet of water from the Laramie River—but Wyoming was not inclined to deal.  Justice Hobbs explained how all of these circumstances forced Carpenter to reconsider his belief in the prior appropriation doctrine, and prompted him to begin research on compacts to settle these disputes.

Justice Hobbs described how people in Colorado and the surrounding states were not receptive to the idea of the federal government issuing decrees to resolve these water disputes.  Carpenter and others wanted to rely on state sovereignty to resolve the disputes between the states and make binding contracts.  These negotiations began in 1922 in Washington D.C.  Justice Hobbs described how Carpenter brought detailed maps along with him to show plans to irrigate the entire Eastern Slope.  Carpenter also wanted the states to be able to use the water as they saw fit within their own borders.  By the end of the negotiations, he accomplished his goal of giving state courts the power to work within their own rules through compacts.  Carpenter also set the landscape for how courts adjudicate these water rights today.

Justice Hobbs closed his speech by describing the importance of water storage here in the West, especially as more and more people migrate to urban centers like Denver.  Justice Hobbs noted how Carpenter knew this when he worked as a state senator to establish the correct priority dates for the reservoirs in Colorado.  To illustrate this point, Justice Hobbs displayed various images of reservoirs across Colorado, including Cherry Creek and the Rio Grande Reservoir.  Justice Hobbs asserted that, following the 1922 negotiations, Carpenter laid the foundation from which eight more interstate compacts would arise.  However, Justice Hobbs pointed out that the success of interstate compacts does not ensure a conflict-free future.  Justice Hobbs finished his remarks by saying: “We want it all, and we think we can do it all.  But there is a limited water supply, and we share it.”

 

Brian Hinkle


Teton Co-op Canal Co. v. Teton Coop Reservoir, 365 P.3d 442 (Mont. 2015) (holding: (i) the Water Court’s finding that Teton Canal’s predecessors in interest did not develop a certain diversion point was clearly erroneous because they developed the diversion point to build Glendora Canal; (ii) the Water Court’s finding that the Eureka Reservoir’s priority date related back to the 1890 Notice was incorrect because the 1890 Notice did not contemplate the Eureka Reservoir; and (iii) the Water Court, on remand, must determine Eureka Reservoir’s priority date).

In 1890, Teton Canal’s predecessors filed an appropriation notice (“1890 Notice”) for claims along the Teton River for irrigation purposes. Immediately following the 1890 Notice, Teton Canal’s predecessors constructed the Glendora Canal. In 1891, the predecessors filed another larger claim along the Teton River (“1891 Notice”). The 1891 Notice listed a diversion point two miles from the Glendora Canal’s diversion point. Both the 1890 and 1891 Notices described part of the purpose of appropriation as to create reservoirs.

In 1893, Teton Canal’s predecessors sold their interests to a company that later transferred those interests to Russell Shepherd. Shepherd subsequently became involved in a court case adjudicating water rights on the Teton River (“Perry case”). During the Perry case, Shepard transferred his rights to Teton Canal. In 1908, the Perry court issued a decree that effectively extinguished the claims made under the 1891 Notice. While Teton Canal demonstrated interest in developing a reservoir, it had not done so by 1926, the year when the United States General Land Office inspected the site. Teton Canal finally constructed the reservoir in 1937.

In 1982, Teton Canal submitted claims for six distinct water rights along the Teton River in order to comply with the requirements of the Montana Water Use Act of 1973. All six claims listed an identical priority date: April 18, 1890. The point of diversion, the Eureka Canal, was also the same for all six claims. Water distributors, Teton Coop Reservoir Co. (“Teton Reservoir”), Lower Teton Joint Objectors, and the Farmer’s Co-op Canal, all objected to Teton Co-op Canal’s claims to the Eureka Reservoir. Teton Canal settled with all of the objectors besides Teton Reservoir. After conducting evidentiary hearings, the Montana Water Court (“Water Court”) issued an order in favor of Teton Canal. The Water Court held that Teton Canal’s water rights claims related back to the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir appealed the judgment of the Water Court to the Supreme Court of Montana (“Court”).

On appeal, Teton Reservoir argued that the Water Court erred in determining that Teton Canal’s claims to the Eureka Reservoir related back to the 1890 Notice. The Court reviewed the Water Court’s findings of fact under the clearly erroneous standard and its conclusions of law for correctness.

The Court first examined whether Teton Canal’s predecessors intended to include the Eureka Reservoir in the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir argued that the Water Court erred in determining that Teton Canal’s predecessors did develop the diversion point described in the 1890 Notice. Teton Reservoir also asserted that the Water Court disregarded evidence clearly demonstrating that Teton Canal’s predecessors built the Glendora Canal, which corresponded with descriptions of the 1890 diversion point. The Court reviewed the evidence including maps and testimony from an engineer who had helped construct the Glendora Canal. The Court determined that the Teton Canal’s predecessors did develop the 1890 diversion point when they created the Glendora Canal. Thus, the Court held that the Water Court’s clearly erred in finding the predecessors had never developed the diversion point.

Teton Reservoir next argued that the 1890 Notice did not contemplate the Eureka Reservoir; rather, the 1891 Notice, which the court had since nullified, first asserted the Eureka Canal as a new diversion point. Conversely, Teton Canal argued that it consolidated its practices to include the Eureka Reservoir in the 1890 Notice. The Water Court found that the 1890 Notice contemplated multiple reservoirs including the Eureka Reservoir. On appeal, the Court assessed whether Teton Canal’s claims could relate back to the 1890 Notice. The Court reviewed the evidence and agreed with Teton Reservoir. The Court found that Teton Canal’s predecessors intended the Glendora Reservoir to be part of the 1890 Notice, but intended the Eureka Reservoir to be a part of the nullified 1891 Notice. The Court held the Water Court misinterpreted the nullified 1891 Notice and, therefore, the Water Court was incorrect in finding that Eureka Reservoir had a priority date of 1890.

The Court then addressed Teton Canal’s argument that the Eureka Reservoir is a part of the 1890 Notice because the diversion point “simply moved” to a point upstream following the nullification of the 1891 Notice. The Court noted that the law required “reasonable diligence” on the part of Teton Canal and its predecessors to develop the Eureka Reservoir. In analyzing the reasonable diligence prong, the Court examined evidence of the course of conduct of Teton Canal following the Perry court decree. Because Teton Canal took forty-five years to build the Eureka Reservoir, the Court concluded that Teton Canal failed to proceed with reasonable diligence in developing the Eureka Reservoir site. Therefore, the claims could not relate back to the 1890 Notice, and the Water Court erred in concluding that Teton Canal “aggressively pursued” the development of the reservoir.

Finally, the Court considered what priority date it should assign to the Eureka Reservoir. Teton Reservoir asserted the year should be 1936, the year when construction on the reservoir began. Because Teton Canal did not provide an alternate date, the Court remanded this question to the Water Court.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the Water Court and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Brian Hinkle

Image: Eureka Reservoir, Montana.  Flickr user Sam Beebe, Creative Commons.


UNIVERSITY OF DENVER SUSTAINABILITY OFFICE: THE GREAT DIVIDE MOVIE SCREENING WITH QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION

Last winter, the University of Denver Sustainability Office and the Anderson Academic Commons Sustainability Committee hosted a screening of “The Great Divide,” a documentary on the history and future of Colorado water.  Havey Productions, in association with Colorado Humanities, created the video and released it in the summer of 2015.  Currently, there are screenings in various locations.  The documentary includes footage from throughout Colorado, including the Colorado River and other areas where Colorado water flows.  It provides a way to look forward regarding Colorado’s water consumption by looking backwards through history.

The documentary provided a fascinating look into all aspects of Colorado water history, replete with historic photos, videos, and expert commentary.  It contains four easy-to-follow sections with in-depth analysis of different aspects of Colorado’s water.

First, the viewer learns about the history of Colorado water, starting with pre-settlement history and moving through modern developments.  This includes how the early settlers and survey teams viewed water in Colorado.  The documentary then discussed how the lack of rain and wet ground led to ditches and the application of Spanish law.  It then covered how Spanish law led to the famous case, Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co., 6 Colo. 443 (Colo. 1882), which established that the prior appropriation doctrine, rather than riparian proprietorship, applied to Colorado water rights.

The documentary’s next section explored the impacts of agriculture and urbanization on development and law.  It discussed the growth of agriculture in Colorado, starting with sugar beet farming in Weld County and orchards in the West.  The documentary also covered the development of in-stream storage projects to try and meet seasonal flow demands.  It explained how the use of storage and diversion projects allowed farmers to use the arid landscape for major agricultural projects as they continue to do today.  The documentary then looked at growth of Front Range cities and how the growth has led to a need for urban water in addition to the water needed for agriculture.  The section ended by addressing problems and alternatives to the growing “buy and dry” policy that some cities have which transfers agricultural water rights to cities and municipalities that need water for their citizens.

The documentary’s third section discussed the environmental movement and the changes in law and policy that resulted from the movement.  It explained how Colorado used inter-basin tunnels and large dams to move and store water in order to meet the needs of the growing Front Range at the expense of the Western Slope.  It then discussed how various projects have directed water from their natural paths into the areas that need water.  This set the stage to discuss how these projects have impacted the areas supplying water and why Colorado needed new laws and policies.  The documentary continued by providing an in-depth discussion of the Colorado River Compact and its limits on local water use and required downstream flows.  It also discussed how Colorado cities have now started a movement to try and make laws that keep sufficient water in the Western Slope in order to support recreation, parks, and the mountain ecosystem.

Finally, the documentary discussed Colorado’s history of conflict over water.  It focused on major disagreements concerning moving Western Slope water to the Front Range, and the way those conflicts morphed into an attitude of cooperation.  The documentary ended by looking at a variety of methods of conserving water and saving aquifers and stream flows.  Specifically, the documentary touched on inter-basin compacts, Aurora Water’s renewable water loops, and the Colorado Water Plan.

Gregory Hobbs, Jr., Senior Water Judge and former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, and Kristin Maharg, the director of programs for the Colorado Foundation for Water Education, answered questions after the showing.  One audience member asked what efforts there were to conserve water without costing people their existing rights.  Justice Hobbs discussed the various existing methods, such as sustainable groundwater management, augmentation plans, and some of the effects on fossil groundwater sources.  Ms. Maharg discussed how agriculture water consumption relates to consumer spending habits and how some farmers are selling their underutilized water rights.

Another audience member asked how the current laws impacted the controlled release of water from dams and why the dams did not release the water in a power-generating way.  Justice Hobbs responded that agreements on water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead required those releases and that the releases were to control sedimentation, rather than to generate power.  The question and answer section concluded with an audience member asking if there were any state initiatives to help farmers obtain new infrastructure, cooperatives, and terminal markets to grow less water-intensive crops than they currently grow.  Justice Hobbs did not think that there would be any state intervention and that this private funding would handle these kinds of initiatives.

The Great Divide documentary and book are available to order online at www.thegreatdividefilm.com.

Robert Petrowsky


“CONFLICTS AND COOPERATION: THE PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE OF INTERSTATE WATER COMPACTS”

 

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

Keynote Address

Introduction

Patricia Mulroy’s keynote address urged future generations of water law attorneys and policymakers to build upon the established partnerships that made the Colorado River Basin community so effective over the past two decades.  Consistent with the theme of the conference, “Conflicts and Cooperation: The Past, Present, and Future of Interstate Water Compacts,” Ms. Mulroy emphasized the importance of cooperation in the face of increased water challenges.  She further stressed the importance of shifting the conversation about water from a discussion about water rights, to one about responsibilities.  Throughout her keynote address, Ms. Mulroy praised the Colorado River Basin participants for their ability to form partnerships and take responsibility for various challenges.

As part of her work as a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former General Manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Ms. Mulroy discussed opportunities to assess international water disputes and consult with international communities.  With this background in mind, she noted that the Colorado River Basin is not without disputes, but asserted that it is the most respected and functional river community throughout the world.  While the Colorado River Basin is a positive model for other water communities, it still faces a number of obstacles in the future.

Strength in Cooperation and Partnership

In highlighting the Colorado River Basin’s accomplishments, Ms. Mulroy attributed its strength to the partnerships that the Basin has formed.  Specifically, Ms. Mulroy said that the Colorado River Basin community derives its strength from its compact.  When looking at the compact, Ms. Mulroy said she sees a document, which in its most basic form, is a partnership.  The compact emerged when the parties recognized that the pillar of Colorado water law, “first in time is first in right,” cannot work between seven states.  As a result, the Colorado River Basin, as a community, created a compact to forge a path for seven equal partners.  Ms. Mulroy argued that this partnership and the parties’ determination to find a solution to issues gave the compact the strength to succeed.

Moreover, Ms. Mulroy noted that this partnership created a culture of cooperation and partnership that allowed the Colorado water community to flourish where others have failed.   Ms. Mulroy noted however, that this partnership has only emerged in the past few decades.  From the 1950s through the 1980s, the compact was least successful because the parties “jockeyed” to obtain preferrence.  However, events such as the litigation between Arizona and California, reminded all of the parties that litigation does not result in a system of winners and losers—only losers.  This lesson sunk in during the 1990s and into this century.  Since this epiphany, the Colorado River Bain community has journeyed back to achieve the underlying purpose and reasoning that helped form the compact initially—a partnership where all seven members are equal.  Ms. Mulroy said that the seven equal partners find opportunity where others find obstacles.

Impending Strains on Future Water-Related Conversations

In recognizing some of the obstacles facing the local water community, Ms. Mulroy pointed to two issues that have catapulted water to an issue of national importance.  She cited the Flint Michigan water crisis as one triggering event.  She argued that it was not the mistake initially made, but the fact that the water utility did not say anything to the community that will negatively impact Colorado River Basin conversations about water.  This betrayal eroded the inherent trust Americans have with their water providers. This loss of trust will weave itself into urban conversations and may hinder conversations regarding water resource management.

Next, Ms. Mulroy noted that the nation currently faces the immense task of determining how to replace the infrastructure that affects the nation’s ability to conserve, manage, and transport water.  Replacing the infrastructure will invariably become an additional tax burden at a time when the general public is resistant to more taxes.  Ms. Mulroy believes that these two issues, among others, will elevate the subject of water to a larger national dialogue.

Impending Strains on the Interplay between Interstate Compacts and Federal Laws

While the nation’s focus is shifting toward water and water scarcity, Ms. Mulroy noted the interplay between federal law and interstate compacts that could result in a serious strain on the ability to form partnerships.  Specifically, Ms. Mulroy pointed to three laws Congress enacted in the 1970s—the Clean Water Act (“CWA”), Safe Water Drinking Act (“SWDA”), and the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”) (collectively “Acts”)—that have the potential to impact the Colorado River Basin system and efforts to cooperate between the main participants.  While the Acts successfully accomplished Congress’ initial goals, Ms. Mulroy suggested that it is unclear whether the Acts are flexible or adaptable enough to meet the needs of a changing climate.

Ms. Mulroy strongly advocated for change—whether it is in administering the Acts or through substantive changes to the provisions of the Acts.  She urged attendees to evaluate the Acts and ensure that each has the capacity to adapt to changing environmental and political climates.  In emphasizing the importance of flexibility, Ms. Mulroy pointed to the success of the Habitat Conservation Plan in the lower Colorado River Basin and the Species Program in the Upper Colorado River Basin as positive examples.

Ms. Mulroy cited the California Bay Delta as one example where the parties’ apparent inability to cooperate hindered water discussions.  She asserted that this inability to cooperate —something she referred to as the “just say no” syndrome—overlaid with the CWA, SDWA, or ESA, has the potential to create a perfect storm which will result in the Acts completely crumbling.  Ms. Mulroy predicts that an attitude of “just say no” will impact every basin where the parties do not form a partnership.

Looking to the Future

Having provided examples of successful and unsuccessful effective partnerships, Ms. Mulroy quoted California Governor Jerry Brown’s statement that he was going to “get shit done” as the mentality parties must adopt as society enters tough drought cycles.  For the Western water community to continue to be successful, Mulroy emphasized that conversations need to shift from a discussion about water rights, to one about responsibilities.  In the face of a changing environmental and political climate, it will only become more difficult to have rational conversations about tough problems.  The willingness to find solutions, in the face of daunting challenges, must serve to unite the West.  While every community has its own culture, infrastructure, and laws to administer, Ms. Mulroy argued that future generations must cooperate to confront common problems and avoid litigation.

Ms. Mulroy concluded her remarks by stating that her generation is handing down a legacy of partnership to the next generation.  With that legacy comes the responsibility to continue the partnership as we confront the new, more extreme stresses that will strain the compact over the next few decades.  She reminded the next generation of lawyers that the guiding principle, which has permeated conversations about water in the West, is that failure is not an option.  We need to find a way to cooperate to find a solution that works for all interested parties.  She strongly urged the next generation to venture outside its immediate communities and go see what it is like in other areas of the world, to tell a story about our journey back to being full partners, and to start thinking about the laws in their flexible fashion rather than a rigid manner.  Failure is not an option.


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Agua Caliente”) holds impliedly reserved water rights in the Coachella Valley in Southern California.  President Ulysses S. Grant established the Agua Caliente’s reservation by Executive Order in 1876.  Today, water in the Coachella Valley is scarce, and the Agua Caliente seeks to satisfy the tribe’s needs by asserting that the tribe’s reserved water rights include the right to groundwater resources.  However, controlling law is unclear on the issue of whether tribal reserved water rights extend to groundwater.  State supreme courts are split on the issue.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) will be the first federal court of appeals in forty years to address the issue.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit will consider whether when the government created Agua Caliente’s reservation the government impliedly reserved rights to groundwater in the context of California’s correlative water rights framework.

Background on Federal Reserved Rights to Water

Federal law provides a framework for Native American tribes’ possession of water rights.  These tribal water rights impliedly arise from the establishment of the reservation.  The reservation grant thus provides a property right to the land and an implied right to sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservation.  Winters v. United States was the seminal case that established the implied reservation doctrine.  The Supreme Court held in Winters that the Fort Belknap tribes gained the right to use unappropriated water from the Milk River for the reservation needs.

Tribal reserved rights vest at the creation of the reservation and hold priority over those of future appropriators.  Tribes do not abandon the reserved rights by nonuse.  Further, most federal reservations predate, and therefore hold priority over, state water law rights.  Prior court decisions further explain the application of Winters to groundwater.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Litigation

The Agua Caliente court found persuasive that every court, with the exception of the Wyoming Supreme Court in a 1989 decision, that has addressed the issue of whether Winters extends to groundwater held in the affirmative.  Many courts declined to directly address the issue, but acknowledged the possibility that Winters could encompass groundwater.  The cases that have previously recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater are not abundant, but they followed one of two lines of reasoning.  Some courts relied on the hydrologic interrelationship between groundwater and surface water to find that Winters applies to both.  Other courts took a logical approach and reasoned that groundwater should be available to fulfill a water reservation along with surface water.

In In re Gila River System & Source, the Arizona Supreme Court was the first court to expressly hold that the federal reserved rights doctrine extended to groundwater.  The Gila court’s 1999 opinion acknowledged that the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water is such that groundwater pumped from a distance may significantly diminish the surface flow.  Nonetheless, Gila deemed the distinction between groundwater and surface water as insignificant for purposes of applying the reserved rights doctrine.  Even though the Gila court expressly extended the reserved rights doctrine to groundwater, it restricted tribal rights to groundwater.  Gila limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater to “where other waters were inadequate to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.”

In 2002, the Montana Supreme Court recognized a tribal federal reserved right to groundwater in Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults.  In Salish, the court prohibited the state agency from issuing water use permits until the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes quantified their water rights.  Like Gila, the court noted that the groundwater must be necessary to fulfill the purposes of reservation, but refrained from determining whether the groundwater at issue met this standard.  Instead, the court ruled that the tribes’ federally reserved water rights included groundwater.  The court’s holding was rooted in logic.  The court failed to find a reason to exclude groundwater from the tribes’ reserved water rights, so it refrained from limiting the tribes’ rights in such a way.

The hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water formed the basis of the Ninth Circuit’s extension of Winters to groundwater in United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co.  In that case involving the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, the court reasoned that the reciprocal hydraulic relationship between groundwater and surface water is such that allocations of groundwater would predictably affect the surface water in a nearby flowing river.  Further, the court interpreted the decree that reserved water in the Truckee River included a right to groundwater if the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe needed groundwater to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The court additionally held that because the tribe’s decreed rights were the two most senior water rights in the Truckee River and those rights extended to groundwater, other users’ allocations of groundwater may not adversely affect the tribe’s right to the surface water.

In New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, a New Mexico district court extended Winters to groundwater for hydrological reasons.  This case involved the Pueblo Indians’ prior right to water in a Rio Grande tributary for domestic and irrigation uses.  The decree gave the tribe water rights appurtenant to its irrigated acreage.  The court held that water rights appurtenant to the tribe’s land included groundwater because groundwater and surface water were physically interrelated, and therefore both were appurtenant to the tribe’s land.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Settlement

Indian Tribes have entered into settlement agreements to resolve disputes over federally reserved rights to groundwater.  Many of these settlement agreements expressly recognized tribal federally reserved rights to groundwater.

For example, a 2007 settlement agreement between the United States, the Lummi Indian Nation, and the State of Washington recognized the tribe’s right to groundwater on the Lummi Reservation in Northwest Washington.  The agreement resolved a water rights case in which the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington held that Winters rights on the Lummi Reservation extend to groundwater.  The agreement gave the Lummi the right to groundwater on the Lummi Peninsula.  Specifically, the agreement allocated the right to use 120 acre-feet per year of groundwater to the State of Washington, Department of Ecology, and the remainder of the groundwater to the Lummi.  The Lummi gained the exclusive right to regulate the use of groundwater underlying the reservation, and the agreement prohibited groundwater withdrawal unless the Lummi had authorized the withdrawal.

In addition to court settlements, state and federal settlement acts have resolved disputes over groundwater rights.  Many of these settlement acts recognize a tribal reserved right to groundwater.  One such federal settlement act is the Snake River Water Rights Act of 2004.  This act resolved water rights disputes between the Nez Perce Tribe, the State of Idaho, and private water rights holders.  The settlement act clarified water rights in the Snake River Basin in Idaho, and it allocated to the tribe the right to groundwater.  Focusing on the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water, the settlement quantified the tribe’s right to surface water and stated that the right extends to the groundwater source beneath.

Limitations on Use of Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater

Several courts that recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater placed limitations on the rights.  Federal reservation grants originally derived from the idea that the water is impliedly reserved to the extent that the water is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The Ninth Circuit has broadly defined the purpose of the reservation as it relates to water rights in order to provide a home for native peoples.  Courts that analyzed groundwater in the context of Winters considered whether groundwater was necessary to fulfill the reservation’s purpose.  The reservation grant itself thus set an initial, and broad, limitation on groundwater rights.  Courts have limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater based on quantity, pumping maximum, purposes of groundwater usage, sales outside the reservation, and necessity.

The Nevada Supreme Court limited the quantity of groundwater allocations on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation in Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci.  The court established the limitation on groundwater as the amount of water in the Orr Ditch Decree adjudication.  The court held that while the decree impliedly gave the Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe a right to groundwater, the decree restricted that right to the tribe’s personal yield of water as set forth in the decree.  Because the specified amount of water in the decree represented the tribe’s full adjudication, the tribe had no right to groundwater in excess of that amount.

In a 1990 settlement agreement between Idaho and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the tribes discussed the right to water under, arising on, flowing across, adjacent to, or otherwise appurtenant to the reservation.  The agreement limited the tribes’ respective rights in terms of necessity: the agreement restricted the tribes’ use of groundwater to instances where their diverted water from other sources was insufficient.  If the one of the tribes diverted less than the agreed-upon quantity, the tribe had the exclusive right to divert groundwater.

A settlement contract between the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and the United States limited groundwater rights with regard to the effect on the surface water sources.  The contract addressed water rights in the Navajo River, Navajo Reservoir, and San Juan-Chama Project.  Under the contract, the tribe had the express right to adjudicate water rights from either the groundwater or surface water.  The tribe gained the right to lease its water off-reservation, but the contract prohibited the tribe from withdrawing groundwater if doing so would adversely impact the surface water source.  As an additional measure relating to the protection of surface water sources, the contract required the tribe to implement a conservation program.

Previous Cases and Potential Guidance to Examining Agua Caliente Defendants’ Arguments

The Agua Caliente court distinguished the water at issue from other cases recognizing tribal reserved right to groundwater.  Many prior cases focused on the hydrological connection between surface water and groundwater to extend Winters to groundwater.  However, Agua Caliente did not involve hydrologically connected groundwater and surface water.  The defendants in Agua Caliente argued that the tribe did not need groundwater to fulfill its reservation’s purpose, so Winters did not apply.  Various courts have previously considered this argument, but each court implemented a somewhat different solution.  Nonetheless, reference to the history and trends of previous cases may help define and clarify the scope of the reserved rights doctrine in relation to the Agua Caliente groundwater.

Daphne Hamilton, J.D., University of Denver College of Law, 2016

Image: Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, Santa Rosa / San Jacinto Mountains, California.  Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.

 

Sources:

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015).

Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

Colville Confederated Tribes v. Walton, 647 F.2d 42 (9th Cir. 1981).

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults, 59 P.3d 1093 (Mont. 2002).

In re Gila River Sys. & Source, 989 P.2d 739 (Ariz. 1999).

In re Snake River Basin Water System, 764 P.2d 78, 81 (Idaho 1988), agreement ratified by Snake River Water Rights Act of 204, Pub. L. No. 108-447, 118 Stat. 2809.

New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, 618 F.Supp. 993, 1010 (D.N.M. 1985).

Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci, 245 P.3d 1145 (Nev. 2010).

United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co, 600 F.3d 1152 (9th. Cir. 2010).

United States ex rel. Lummi Indian Nation v. Washington, Dep’t of Ecology, (W.D. Wash. Nov. 20, 2007) (approving settlement agreement).

Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564 (1908).

Settlement Agreement: Contract between the US and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe (Dec. 8, 1992).

Royster, Judith V., 47 Idaho L. Rev. 255, Conjunctive Management of Reservation Water Resources: Legal Issues Facing Indian Tribes (2011).

The 1990 Fort Hall Indian Water Rights Agreement (Jul. 10, 1990).

 


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

Many in the United States take water for granted.  It is a commodity that typically comes out of a faucet clean and at a low cost.  However, not everyone in the United States has this amenity.  In rural areas, residents commonly rely on wells drawing out water that is not pure for consumption.  Many Native Americans, residing in their sovereign nations within the United States, lack access to clean water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and other every day uses.  There is a question of how these Native Americans can ensure their water is of the quality other United States citizens take for granted.

It seems that only drastic events make water a discussion at the dinner table; events like the Gold King Mine spill, where three million gallons of metal-polluted water spilled forth from an abandoned mine turning the picturesque clear water of the Animas River yellow-orange.[1]  Both the Southern Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation are directly downstream of the polluted Animas River in southern Colorado and across the border in New Mexico.  The Animas is a tributary of the San Juan River, which flows through over 200 miles of the Navajo Nation.[2]  These tribes rely on the river to grow food, for drinking water, and for their modern municipal and industrial needs.  How are Native American tribes to ensure the reserved water they have a right to use is of the quality they expect and need to sustain themselves?  This blog discusses the notion that some inherent right to quality may arise from the Winters doctrine.  It also considers other means for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a useable quality.

Water Quality in Winters Doctrine

Under Winters, the United States Supreme Court held that Congress set aside land for the Native American tribes to live on, and, along with the land, Congress impliedly reserved water.[3]  Congress’ implied reservation of water for the land, and any other reserved federal land, was based on the amount of water necessary to fulfill the reservation’s need when it was established.[4]  Presently, courts acknowledge both reserved Native American water for growing crops[5] and water for traditional tribal uses, such as hunting and fishing.[6]

Some legal scholars believe that Winters may apply to the quality of water as well.[7]  In the Winters opinion, Justice McKenna wrote, “in furthering and advancing the civilization and improvement of the Indians. . . it is essential and necessary that all of the waters of the river flow down the channel uninterruptedly and undiminished in quantity and undeteriorated in quality,”[8] allowing for the tribes to argue an inherent right to both water quantity and water quality.

The Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona recently made an argument for their right to water quality. [9]  The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Court”) heard the case.[10]  In Hopi Tribe the Court held that the United States did not have a fiduciary duty, under Winters, to ensure the quality of Native Americans’ water supply.[11]  The Hopi Tribe brought the action seeking monetary relief because of high arsenic concentrations in their water supplies.[12]  Arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant found in rock and soils.[13]  The Hopi Tribe wanted funds to improve their infrastructure and ability to provide clean water to the reservation.[14]  The Hopi Tribe argued that the United States had an affirmative duty to ensure water quality on the reservation.[15]  They argued this duty existed based on the Winters doctrine and the Act of 1958,[16] holding in trust Hopi lands as described in 1882.[17]

The Court denied the Hopi Tribe’s argument for two reasons.  First, the Hopi Tribe’s argument that the United States had a fiduciary duty to act did not persuade the Court.[18]  No language in the Act of 1958, or the Executive Order of 1882, gave weight to this argument.[19]  Second, the Court took issue with why the contaminant was in the water.[20]  The Hopi Tribe could not drink their water because of arsenic contamination, but this contamination is natural.[21]  Natural erosion, as opposed to third-party actions, resulted in the unsafe amount of arsenic in the reservation water.[22]  The Court acknowledged that in a situation where an upstream user affects the water quality, the United States might have a duty to act.[23]  The Court held, however, that the United States had no fiduciary responsibility to improve the water quality when the contamination occurred naturally.[24]

The Court did not find a connection between water quality and Winters doctrine in Hopi Tribe, but nevertheless there is still an argument for an inferred connection between the Winters doctrine and water quality standards.  The Court’s decision in Hopi Tribe left room for Native Americans to argue for a right to water quality under Winters.  The Court’s dicta in Hopi Tribe seems to assert that the United States does have a duty to act when a third-party diminishes the water quality, as opposed to harmful, naturally occurring minerals.  The United States District Court for the District of Arizona (“District Court”) found such a duty in United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation District.[25]  The District Court identified two reasons why the Apache Tribe’s water was tainted.[26]  First, upstream irrigators diverted the entire flow of the stream.[27]  When the irrigators returned the water to the stream it carried with it salts from the irrigated lands.[28]  Second, upstream water users pumped groundwater in excess, particularly when flows in the Gila River were low.[29]  Groundwater has higher salinity than surface water, so the water coming back into the Gila River at low flow had a higher salinity than what naturally occurs.[30]  The upstream users, through these two acts, raised water salinity to an unusable level for the Apache Tribe’s salt-sensitive crops.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that 1) the landowners’ diverted water was strictly for agricultural irrigation use; 2) the district court’s interpretation of the Globe Equity consent decree of June 29, 1935, Article VIII in all of its parts; and 3) that the “lower valley diverters in Gila Crossing District were not entitled to priority call as against upstream diverters.”[31]

The Gila Valley case contrasts the Hopi Tribe case.  When interpreted together, it is likely that upstream users are liable for the polluted water that a tribe uses downstream.  Further, the United States has a duty to ensure water quality only when it has a fiduciary duty to the tribe.  However, when natural causes lead to water pollution, the United States has no duty to provide the tribe with clean water, even when a fiduciary duty exists.

Another Means of Ensuring Clean Water

To be sure, no federal court has stated a clear rule regarding an implied right to water quality under Winters.  However, Native American tribes have other means of ensuring their water is of the quality necessary for agricultural and other purposes.  The Clean Water Act allows for the Environmental Protection Agency to treat tribes as states.[32]  A Native American tribe, to be treated as a state, has to show that it has a governing body with governmental powers, that it will perform functions related “to the management and protection of water resources,” and that the tribe is capable of such authority.[33]  The tribes that qualify gain the benefit of receiving assistance from the United States to restore water quality where contaminated.[34]

Once the United States recognizes the Native American tribe as a state under the Clean Water Act, the tribe is able to set its own standards on water quality.[35]  The tribe’s water quality standards must be reasonable and enforceable against upstream water users.[36]  This power gives federally recognized Native American tribes the ability to set their own enforceable water quality standards, and provides the federal government with assistance in ensuring water quality improvements in the United States.[37]

There are several barriers that prevent tribes from taking advantage of this statute.  One barrier is acquiring the necessary capital to sustain a governing body that can handle the responsibilities that come with governmental powers.  Further, tribes bring projects under this statute that are likely costly, even with federal assistance.  The statute imposts an additional barrier in that only federally recognized tribes may exercise governmental authority over water quality.  State governments and the Federal government do not always recognize the same tribes.[38]  Therefore, while tribes may seek federal assistance to ensure water quality on their reservations, state-imposed hurdles prevent many tribes from being able to request that assistance.

Conclusion

Despite what some legal scholars believed as far back as twenty years ago, the courts have yet to decide a case that addresses whether Winters applies to a right to water quality.[39]  Professor Judith Royster has suggested that if the courts find Native American tribes have a right to water quality it will likely be closely tied to the quantity of water.[40]  While Winters remains open regarding water quality, there are other avenues for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a necessary quality under the Clean Water Act.  Those means, however, are not without obstacles.[41]

W. James Tilton, J.D., University of Denver School of Law, 2016

Image: Coahuilla Indian well at Martinez, Palm Springs, ca.1903.  Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften, Creative Commons.

[1]  Gold King Mine Could have Been Prevented, (Nov. 15, 2015), http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/ 11/15/gold-king-mine-could-have-been-prevented-162427.

[2]  Id.

[3]  Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564, 576–77 (1907).

[4]  U.S. v. New Mexico, 438 U.S. 696, 701 (1978).

[5]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564, at 569–70, 576.

[6]  U.S. v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394, 1408–09 (9th. Cir. 1983).

[7]  See generally Cynthia Brougher, Indian Reserved Water Rights Under the Winters Doctrine: An Overview, Congressional Research Service (2011), http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/ RL32198.pdf; Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/; Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994) http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[8]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564 at 567.

[9]   Hopi Tribe v. U.S., 782 F.3d 662 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

[10]  Id.

[11]  Id. at 668–69.

[12]  Id. at 665.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id. at 665–66.

[15]  Id. at 669.

[16]  An Act to Direct the Secretary of the Army to Convey Certain Property Located at Boston Neck, Narragansett, Washington County, R.I., to the State of Rhode Island, Pub. L. No. 85-548, 72 Stat. 403 (1958), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/STATUTE-72/STATUTE-72-Pg403-2/content-detail.html.

[17]  Executive Order for Moqui (Hopi) Reservation, (Dec. 16, 1882), Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Vol. I, Laws (Compiled to December 1, 1902), 805, Compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904, http://digital.library.okstate.edu /kappler/vol1/html_files/ARI0801.html.

[18]  Hopi Tribe, 782 F.3d at 668–69.

[19]  Id. at 669.

[20]  Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id. at 665–66.

[23]  Id. at 669.

[24]  Id.

[25]  920 F.Supp 1444 (D. Ariz. 1996).

[26]  Id. at 1450.

[27]  Id. at 1451.

[28]  Id.

[29]  Id. at 1450.

[30]  Id.

[31]  Id.; see also United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 117 F.3d 425, 426 (9th. Cir. 1997) (affirming the United States district court’s reasoning and findings).

[32]  33 U.S.C.A. § 1377 (June 2014).

[33]  Id. at (e).

[34]  See §§ 1377 and 1251(g).

[35]  Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994), http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[36]  Id. at 118.

[37]  See 33 U.S.C.A. § 1383(c).

[38]  See Federal and State Recognized Tribes, National Conference of State Legislatures, (2016) http://www.ncsl.org/research/state-tribal-institute/list-of-federal-and-state-recognized-tribes.aspx.

[39]  Chandler, supra note 35.

[40]  Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/.

[41]  Id.