35th Annual American Bar Association Water Law Conference

       Los Angeles, California                           March 29, 2017

The Public Trust Doctrine: A Modern Debate Over a Classic Doctrine

 

Three speakers came together to discuss their views on the public trust doctrine as it applies to the current state of water law. Jennifer Harder moderated the discussion. She is a professor of law at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, in Sacramento, California. The first part of the discussion was led by Buzz Thompson of O’Melveny & Myers, who is also a professor at Stanford Law School. He was followed by J. Craig Smith of Smith Hartvigsen, PLLC, located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Cynthia Koehler, co-founder and executive director of WaterNow Alliance, a non-profit organization based in San Francisco, concluded the discussion.

Thompson introduced the panel topic and provided general background information regarding the public trust doctrine and its application to the area of water rights. He informed the audience that the application of the public trust doctrine to water law sports about fifty years of legal history. Yet, this doctrine remains extremely controversial as it exposes a variety of legal puzzles. Only a handful of state courts have written on the subject; for example, both the California Supreme Court and the Hawaii Supreme Court published landmark opinions regarding the public trust doctrine in water law. Generally, states recognize that water is a public resource, exclusively owned by the state, even if states also recognize a variety of water rights held by private individuals.

Thompson pointed to several concerns regarding the public trust doctrine. Some believe that the doctrine will give courts a license to engage in strong judicial intervention. Others feel that this doctrine is simply a form of broken judicial takings. Yet still, others are worried that this doctrine is anti-majoritarian because the legislature may not be able to override judicial opinions on the applicability of the doctrine. There is an even split amongst courts who have addressed this topic; states such as California have applied the public trust doctrine to their state consumptive water laws, while other states, including Colorado, have explicitly rejected the application of the doctrine to water rights. At this time, it is unclear as to whether applying the public trust doctrine will yield positive or negative consequences.

Smith followed Thompson’s introduction with his views on the public trust doctrine in the context of the prior appropriation system. He does not believe that the public trust doctrine should be applied to water law where the prior appropriation doctrine governs and private property rights are at stake. Smith feels that this public trust movement reflects the general unease the public feels about private property rights over a public resource. For example, in Utah, like in many arid western states, private water rights held by individuals or private companies are key to the value of their property holdings. The properties of many land owners would be essentially worthless if those private water rights are taken away. The value of the land is tied to the water rights that comes with it. Smith believes that the well-established prior appropriation system works well and will continue to work well, even if we are not comfortable with the idea.

A current case in Utah arose from a unique situation created by a clash between the public trust doctrine and prior appropriation. The questions posed were: whether water is a public resource; if the public has a right to access the water, to what extent would that encroach on the rights of private individuals; can a certain amount of limited trespass be allowed through private property to access water sources; and should this sort of access be limited to only navigable waters? Smith concluded that in the future, state legislatures must pick a side because the two doctrines conflict with each other on a fundamental basis. If both doctrines exist together, there will be much confusion and inconsistences in state policies and laws, which will in turn hurt those who has invested an immense amount of resources in water infrastructure and legislation.

Koehler took the opposite view in her discussion of the public trust doctrine in water law. She began by noting that the public trust doctrine is actually quite old, extending back to England and the concept of sovereign ownership – the monarchy owns resources that benefit the citizenry and hold such resources in trust. This idea immigrated to the United States and several U.S. Supreme Court cases in the Nineteenth Century established that each state, as its own sovereign, has the right and responsibility to hold public resources in trust for the benefit of its citizens. Although Koehler agrees with Craig that the public trust doctrine impose limitations on private enterprises, she believes that this is necessary to protect the interest of state citizens. The key question to ask is: to what extent is it acceptable for the public trust doctrine to limit private property rights?

Koehler demonstrated situations where the destruction or damage to natural resources and the environment is so severe and so prevalent that the state has a duty to step in and intervene. States have an obligation to preserve the value of such resources for future generations. Water, like other aspects of nature – the land, the sea, the air, is a different type of property, public property. Such property cannot be parceled out and used in the same way as other more traditional kinds of private property. To withhold access to water would have a significant impact on the general population and society as a whole. Koehler feels that to view water as a resource equivalent to other types of private property is misguided and dangerous. This kind of view, when reflected in policy and law, will only cause harm to state citizens and to the state’s natural environmental, as well as, create irreparable damage to natural resources and alter our nation’s environment permanently.

Tina Xu

Image: A walking path follows along Salt Creek in Death Valley, CA. Flickr user nate2b, Creative Commons.


Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon         March 2–5, 2017

Film Presentation of Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute

 

Presented by: Jenna Cavelle, Director; Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute Tribal Member & Activist; Jacklyn Velasquez, Big Pine Paiute Tribal Member & Vermont Law School; and Chris Morrow, Viterbi Graduate School of Engineering.

The landscape in Owens Valley—in arid Inyo County—contains evidence of long-standing irrigation practices predating the American West’s colonial era. These dried up channels and diversions come from the people who traditionally inhabited Owens Valley. Today, the descendants of those people belong to the Bishop Paiute, the Big Pine Paiute, and a number of other tribes. The film Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute explores a series of extensive pre-historic irrigation systems in the Owens Valley and argues that evidence of early beneficial use may help establish a substantial water right for the region’s present Indian tribes. The film frames the exploration by discussing intervening historical injustices that prevented local tribes from conducting irrigation.

To establish a substantial water right, the local tribal members recognized a need to establish evidence proving long-term use. To this end, it is easy to establish that pre-historic irrigation channels actually existed, but it is much more difficult to show the water quantity used. Nevertheless, there is much evidence verifying the extent of prehistoric irrigation channels. First, there is historic evidence proving the the existence of an irrigation system from 1856, when surveyor Alexey W. Von Schmidt marked ancient irrigation channels on maps he prepared. Second, oral traditions suggest that irrigation practices occurred. Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute tribal member, remembered hearing about the channels when he was a child. Third, various archaeological studies suggest the existence of these channels. Finally, many of these channels are still visible today. Combining data, the film estimates that native people constructed over sixty distinct networks of ditch systems in the Owens Valley.

The more difficult task for Williams and others is to prove the quantity of water that flowed through these irrigation systems. So far, the local community has only been able to gain a rough estimate of the water quantity that could flow through one of the streams. Scaling this estimate up area-wide, local tribes could have access to tens of thousands of acre-feet each year if they successfully applied for a water right. Unfortunately, estimating hydrologic flows could be cost prohibitive.

The indigenous people of Owens Valley irrigated the land until the Owens Valley Indian War, which ended in 1863 and resulted in the removal of the native populations. Even after being allowed to return home, Indians could not purchase land. As a result, the Bishop Paiute and other tribes experienced a “forced, sudden amnesia,” and lost their irrigation practices.

The rapid population growth of Los Angeles exacerbated this sudden amnesia. In 1905, the City of Los Angeles approved the Los Angeles Aqueduct and began purchasing water rights and land in Owens Valley. Since then, the City of Los Angeles has pumped hundreds of thousands of acre-feet per year from Owens Valley. Williams says that the way his elders described the land in Owens Valley is very different from the way it appears now. He links this change to the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

If tribes can establish beneficial use predating the aqueduct, they could prevent the Los Angeles from diverting massive amounts from the Owens Valley. However, Los Angeles has long been militant in its Owens Valley litigation and owns vast quantities of the area’s land. For local Indian tribes to establish a water right, they must identify and prove the existence of evidence that can accurately describe the prehistoric beneficial use of people in the area.

After the film concluded, the film’s director, Jenna Cavelle, along with Williams and two other contributors, hosted a question-and-answer session. Cavelle stated that the film has created a movement within the local community that sees this effort as chance to establish a substantial water right. Unlike many tribes, the Big Pine Paiute and others in the Owens Valley never received a federal “Winters” right to water, so the prospect of establishing a first-in-time, first-in-right beneficial use for the tribe is a first step that has invigorated many locals.

The largest issue facing the tribal communities is the funding needed to accumulate enough evidence. Developing and presenting this portfolio would require archaeologists, biologists, attorneys, hydrologists, engineers, and geologists. The cost alone of estimating water quantity flows would be astronomical. Cavelle hopes that screenings of this film will help raise awareness and encourage viewers to contribute to the tribes’ efforts.

Matthew Kilby

 

Image: A small rainstorm over the Owen’s Valley. Flickr User, JesseLeeRoper, Creative Commons.


Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon        March 2–5, 2017

The Citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon—How One Community Started to Fight for Their Drinking Water, and Ended Up Fighting for Us All

 

Presented by: Nancy Webster, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Kate Taylor, Frigate Adventure Travel; Steve Perry, Citizens for Rockaway Beach Watershed Protection; Jason Gonzales, Oregon Wild.

This panel featured citizens of Rockaway Beach, Oregon who experienced the destruction of their local watersheds by clearcutting. The panelists spoke about their experiences throughout the clearcutting process, including their frustrations with inaction from both the local and state governments.

Rockaway Beach, a small town on the northern Oregon coast, relies on Jetty Creek for its freshwater supply. One panelist described the creek as “a crevice between hills, but it’s our lifeline.” Yet, from 2003–2014, timber companies removed eighty-two percent of the trees around Jetty Creek. Overall, timber companies have removed ninety percent of the trees from Jetty Creek. Often, these companies performed aerial sprays of “chemical cocktails” over the trees before and after clearcutting. The State of Oregon does not require timber companies to release information about what chemicals these sprays contain, nor does the state provide notice to locals before sprays occur. The Oregon Forestry Practices Act contains almost no requirements for watershed protection. Furthermore, the City of Rockaway Beach, the municipality with regulatory authority of Jetty Creek, does not require any notification or information on the contents of chemicals.

The combination of a lack of regulatory oversight and an acquiescence to the timber industry has effectively ruined Jetty Creek. Since clearcutting began, levels of trihalomethanes in Jetty Creek have rapidly increased and are far beyond the EPA’s suggested levels. The turbidity of Jetty Creek has also increased, reducing fish populations. Further, logging has negatively impacted bird and beaver populations, forcing animals away from an otherwise seemingly wild landscape and creating a the appearance of a “Silent Spring.” The reduced water quality has also forced Rockaway Beach residents to drink from packaged water bottles. Some residents keep water dispensers in their homes. This is the only alternative the City of Rockaway Beach has to Jetty Creek, as leaky septic systems and percolating seawater have made the area’s groundwater unsafe for consumption.

These are not the only problems that locals have experienced at the hands of the timber industry. Panelist Kate Taylor, for example, commented on how the logging negatively impacts water-tourism. Taylor is a professional fishing guide who works in the area, and she recounted the negative experiences her customers have when the river they are fishing turn to “chocolate mud” because of nearby logging. When she asked the Oregon Department of Forestry about this issue, the agency became “defensive” and did not assist her. Taylor’s experience mirrored the other panelists’ struggles to bring their issues to the attention of city, county, and state government officials.

When the panelists initially sought to confront the issue, they approached their local, municipal governments, but the Rockaway Beach City Council rejected all efforts against the timber industry. The panelists believed the city is clinging on to a cultural string, instead of supporting local economic growth. After inaction by the local government, the citizens turned to the state. The state responded without any tangible policy change. The state, like the local government, seemed too tied to the cultural idea Oregon’s logging industry. This steadfast protection of the timber industry does not produce economic gain. For example, logging companies are not allowed to perform aerial chemical sprays on federal lands in Oregon. The state’s use of aerial chemical sprays is simply a concession to the industry.

Frustrated with the state and city, the citizens performed “citizen science” to prove to regulators that the logging industry has been negatively affecting watersheds. Through citizen action, the panelists and other members of the public have created a series of legislative proposals to limit aerial spraying in the timber industry. Oregon Democratic State Senator Michael E. Dembrow recently sponsored Senate Bill 892, also known as “The Timber Aerial Spray Right to Know” Bill. This bill was accompanied by Senate Bill 500, which provides agriculturalists with a cause of action for damages resulting from timber companies that conduct aerial sprays.

Overall, any short-term gains in the legislature will prove insufficient. The panelists warned that other parts of the Oregon coast, notably Short Sands Beach, are in imminent danger of succumbing to the same fate as Jetty Creek. The only true way to prevent watershed destruction in Oregon, the panelists contended, is to fundamentally reshape the state’s approach to the timber industry.

Matthew Kilby

Image: Sunset on Rockaway Beach, Oregon.  Flickr user Jake Melara, Creative Commons.


35th Annual American Bar Association Water Law Conference

       Los Angeles, California                           March 29, 2017

Agricultural Water Conservation: Is It Really So Simple?

 

Jan Newman from Tonkon Torp, LLP moderated the panel discussion on water law issues as it relates to agricultural water conservation. The panel featured three distinguished speakers who contributed their views and experience in water conservation as it relates to agricultural development in the United States. The speakers were James Eklund, outgoing Director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Warren H. Peterson, Vice President of Farmland Reserve, Inc. headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Adam Schempp, Director of the Western Water Program at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. The main theme of the panel was whether traditional water law doctrines, such as prior appropriation—“first in time, first in right”—and beneficial use promote water conservation efforts.

Adam Schempp began the panel with a general overview of the challenges western water users face, and the possible solutions to these challenges. Water conservation efforts are restricted by the physical geography of the arid western landscape where sources of surface water and groundwater are intrinsically bound by the layout of the land. There are also inconsistencies in the legal doctrines each state legislature uses as a basis for developing their own water laws. Economic considerations also shape conservation efforts in the various western states. Schempp noted that water conservation is a complex topic, and there are a multitude of issues and considerations in each of the three broad categories described above.

Next, Warren Peterson discussed his views on water conservation efforts based on his work and experience in the Utah water law landscape. Peterson believes that water conservation is always a question that revolves around the reallocation of resources: how much water may be retrieved or preserved after use. He suggested that the best way to promote agricultural water conservation is for farmers to utilize more efficient irrigation techniques. Science and technology are friends of water conservation, and creative new irrigation systems could drastically decrease the total amount of water needed for crops as well as increase the amount of reallocated water leftover after use. To illustrate his point, Peterson presented a quick case study about the hydrology of Utah’s Sevier River and the effects of water appropriation for agricultural and urban use on the river system.

James Eklund followed Peterson’s discussion with his insights regarding the state of water conservation in Colorado. Eklund began by noting that Colorado is home to two of the world’s top eighteen most stressed river basins. This designation is probably the result of the unique physical landscape within the state of Colorado. With a map of Colorado and the surrounding states as a visual reference, Eklund pointed to the fact that Colorado is separated into two distinct regions: the water rich western area and the water poor eastern area. Not only that, many of Colorado’s water sources flow out of the state without having a significant amount of water sources flowing in. Tension between water users from the two regions has shaped the history of water law in Colorado. This tension between the two regions is exacerbated by Colorado’s geographical dichotomy as the western regions of Colorado has a low population and is primarily rural agricultural, and the eastern regions of Colorado has a high population and is generally urban. Furthermore, the urban population in the eastern regions of Colorado has increased drastically in recent years. Such a growth puts pressure on the state to allocate enough water to supply the urban populations. This kind of water allocation negatively impacts water rights holders residing in western Colorado. The political battle between the agricultural west and the urban east is constant and greatly affects statewide water use planning and conservation efforts.

After Eklund’s overview on the nature of Colorado’s water infrastructure, Schempp gave a brief conclusion to summarize the panel discussion. Schempp emphasized the primary purpose of water conservation – to return more water to the stream or, alternatively, to maintain a higher volume of water flowing in stream. The key to water conservation is not to reduce the amount water rights holders may use but rather to use the amount of water they already have in more efficient ways so as to promote a higher return of water to the stream. Current agricultural water conservation projects have mostly been tested on a smaller scale, with individual private farmers. But the results have been positive and overall very promising. Schempp ended the discussion by characterizing successful water conservation as a collaborative effort; states must work together to change laws that are outdated and outmoded, implement new technology and innovative strategies to promote water conservation, and give farmers incentives to utilize their water more efficiently and to produce less waste.

Tina Xu

 

Image: A field of flowers surround a sprinkler irrigation system in Oregon. Flickr user Ian Sane, Creative Commons.

 


Public Interest Environmental Law Conference 2017: One Cause, One Voice

Eugene, Oregon        March 2–5, 2017

California Groundwater Management

 

Presented by: Alison Divine, Community Legal Information Center, California State University, Chico.

Alison Divine discussed how the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (“SGMA”) has impacted the state. Divine first discussed the history of groundwater management in California, then the general functions of SGMA, and finally how SGMA has developed during in its infancy.

California’s groundwater system is expansive. Seventy-five percent of Californians depend on groundwater, in some part, for their primary water supply. The state recognizes two types of groundwater: subterranean streams, which consist of groundwater flowing in a known and definite channel; and percolating groundwater, which a California court once eloquently described as “vagrant wandering drops [of water] moving by gravity in any and every direction along the line of least resistance.” City of Los Angeles v. Hunter, 156 Cal. 603, 607 (1909). From 1850 until 1903, California landowners possessed absolute ownership of the groundwater under their land. After 1903, California adopted a correlative rights system for groundwater use. Until 2014, California only regulated its groundwater through local agencies, groundwater ordinances, and basin adjudications.

SGMA is California’s first statewide groundwater management act, and it provides a long-term framework for sustainable management in California by requiring the establishment of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (“GSAs”) in each county by June 30, 2017. GSAs may be formed in a variety of ways, including: (1) as local public agencies; (2) as a public water agency, county, or municipality; and (3) through a Joint Powers Agreement (“JPA”) or Memorandum of Agreement (“MOA”) between multiple agencies. Each GSA has wide authority to manage the sub-basin(s) on which it sits. GSAs may regulate groundwater well registration, measurements of groundwater extraction and metering, filing of annual reports, well spacing, and basin boundaries. GSAs may also establish sub-basins, limit groundwater extraction, and establish recharge, conjunctive management, or pumping reduction programs. However, to manage sub-basins and basins, GSAs must submit a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (“GSP”), which must include a description of the aquifer, historical data, a discussion of historical and projected water demand and supplies, a detailed map of the basin’s boundaries, and a map identifying existing and potential recharge areas. GSPs must also include a twenty-year sustainability goal, as well as a series of five-year interim milestones. GSA must submit GPS for basins designated as “high priority” by January 31, 2020 and medium priority basins by January 31, 2022.

Divine discussed how eleven counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region had adapted to SGMA’s requirements by March 2017. For several of these counties, jurisdictional challenges have inhibited progress. In Sutter County alone, eight agencies of various sorts have submitted overlapping GSA applications to manage the county’s three sub-basins. Although the county contains high-priority areas, no GSP had been submitted as of the date of the presentation. Sacramento County, Glenn County, Yolo County, and Yuba County are all experiencing similar problems. With so many applications, it may be hard for these counties to come to a consensus on which GSAs to select. At the same time, however, two counties (Placer and Shasta) have received no GSA applications. Solano County has received one application but has yet to determine how to proceed.

Some counties in the Sacramento River Hydrologic Region have had more success. Colusa County, which contains ten sub-basins, has benefitted from seven GSA applicants coming together to form a JPA. Tehama County has approved a GSA comprising an eleven-member board of directors. The directors include three city representatives and three service-district representatives, as well as an additional representative from each of the county’s five supervisorial districts. The board for the Tehama County GSA has final authority over GSPs, future amendments, ordinances, rules regulations, and fees.

Butte County’s early transition to SGMA’s framework has also been successful. In 2015, Butte County hired a consulting farm to help it integrate the county’s groundwater management into SGMA. Although fifteen agencies have sought GSA status, the county has implemented a Groundwater Pumpers Advisory Committee, which first met in January 2017. Butte County, Tehama County, and Colusa County have all experienced various levels of success in preparing for SGMA’s early deadlines. These counties provide an example of what effective, long-term, and local management of groundwater may look like in California.

Matthew Kilby

Image: A vernal pool near Oroville, in Butte County, California. Flickr user, mary. Creative Commons.


24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference

Denver, Colorado                                October 5-8, 2016

A Glass Half Empty – Flint, Environmental Justice, and America’s Drinking Water Infrastructure Problem

At the 24th Annual American Bar Association Environmental, Energy, and Natural Resources Law Fall Conference in Denver, a panel of three professionals in the field of environmental justice tied themes of environmental justice to the history, issues, and lessons learned from the recent drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Randy Hayman, from Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C., opened by stating that the Safe Drinking Water Act (“SDWA”) is the most important piece of legislation the United States Congress has ever passed, because “water is life.” The SDWA gave U.S. citizens assurance that their water would not be contaminated by anything that could cause serious health problems. Considering the necessity of water to human survival, Hayman said the SDWA is inherent to environmental justice.

The majority of Hayman’s statements were about the history and execution of the SDWA. Many regulatory checks were put in place by Congress to ensure that everyone is confident their water is safe to drink and use for everyday needs. Other than wells serving fewer than twenty-five people, every public water system is subject to the rules of the SDWA, and failure to meet the standards set forth by the law can result in fines of $25,000 per day. The damage does not just end at the fine, however. Public confidence in officials erodes when a community violates SDWA rules. Therefore, public officials face the dilemma of whether to publicize the existence of a water crisis, because failure to solve the problem swiftly result in the public’s trust quickly diminishing.

The moderator asked Hayman to elaborate on the Lead and Copper Rule, a health standard that minimizes the amount of those contaminants in public pipelines. Lead and copper particles enter the water stream from pipes, pollution, and natural processes. As long as the amount of either remains below a specified “action level,” the water is still considered safe for human consumption. An action level is an amount of contamination that will require additional action from water system administrators, including treatment, public notification, or exposure minimization. Exceeding an action level is not a violation itself—nor is it necessarily a health and safety hazard—but it could indicate the existence of a water-pollution problem. According to Hayman, because education about safe contaminant levels is insufficient, news of a community’s water getting contaminated at all sometimes causes panic. Hayman suggested officials should take greater steps to inform the public about lead and copper, since it is only when those measurements rise to very high levels that they become a potential threat to health.

The second speaker was Quentin Pair, a professor of environmental justice at Howard University School of Law who also works in the environmental justice division at the Department of Justice. According to Pair, environmental justice is the civil rights of the Twenty-First Century. In his discussion, Pair said the themes of the civil rights movement are tied directly to modern environmental justice because the Environmental Protection Agency’s definition of environmental has very similar language to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act – equal treatment is emphasized in both. He mentioned how critical it is to consult the general public first about environmental issues, rather than waiting for elected officials to take notice. He believes grassroots organizing can begin to solve environmental problems much more efficiently and effectively than any other public resource because local community members know which issues are most important to their neighbors than elected officials.

As part of his discussion, Pair shared the story of the beginning of modern environmental justice in Warren County, North Carolina. Beginning in 1973 a large landfill was used to dispose of contaminants without the knowledge or consent of one of the poorest counties in the state, the populations of which were more than seventy percent black at the time. This controversy was addressed in several lawsuits, including United States v. Ward in 1982. This trend has since continued, and three out of every four disposal facilities in the country are located in minority and low-income communities. According to Pair, race is the most significant determinant of the location of these disposal facilities across the country. He said that in order to talk about environmental justice, it is impossible not to consider how much damage environmental racism has caused.

Michelle Wilde Anderson, a law professor at Stanford who focuses on state and local government, was the final speaker on this panel. She brought the discussion full-circle by connecting what the other speakers discussed to the Flint crisis. She described the professionals who initiated the documentation of the contaminated drinking water in Flint, including a pediatrician who investigated the doubling and tripling of lead levels in her patients’ blood. Those professionals did what Pair criticized public officials for not doing: they listened to the community and learned what was wrong.

Wilde Anderson also described how the cause of the crisis was a revenue problem rather than a spending problem. Because of an abundance of deferred spending and loans in the 1970s, Flint did not have the resources to meet local needs. Public infrastructure suffered as a result of the lack of resources, and old systems that were not properly maintained grew more vulnerable to leaking contaminants over time. Ultimately, she said, the decision to rebuild these outdated infrastructure systems is left to the taxpayers, and the longer those systems go without repair the more likely health hazards are to occur in the near future. Wilde Anderson views Flint as a warning or a wake-up call to the nation because old pipeline systems will fail without better and more regular maintenance.

The panel then accepted questions from the audience. One audience member asked how federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”), could do a better job dealing with environmental injustice. Pair suggested those problems could not be solved without providing more funding for environmental justice, which Congress has denied. He further noted that many communities do not trust the federal government to solve all of their problems, so the EPA currently has neither the political nor the financial support needed to tackle those issues. Another audience member asked how local communities can recognize access to safe drinking water as a basic human right. Wilde Anderson answered by saying that leaders do not try hard enough to make water available to communities that cannot afford it, so communities fall short of recognizing access to safe drinking water as an essential human right. The costs associated with delivering water to these communities are high, and not many cities have completed these critical delivery infrastructure projects.

Travis Parker

Image: “There’s Something in the Water.”  Property of Live Once Live Wild, Creative Commons.


6th Annual Carver Colloquium

Denver, Colorado                                September 29, 2016

Water for Sale: Prior Appropriation or Free Market Trade?

The Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute hosted the sixth annual Carver Colloquium on September 29, 2016. Former Colorado Supreme Court Justice, Gregory Hobbs, and Professor Gary Libecap, of the University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, compared the relative merits of the prior appropriation system and the free market system of water allocation.  The debate over which system of water allocation is better suited for today’s environmental realities quickly evolved into an in-depth discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the doctrine of prior appropriation, as well as an insightful comparison between Colorado’s use of prior appropriation and California’s hybrid utilization of prior appropriation and riparianism. University of Denver Sturm College of Law professor Jan Laitos moderated the event, which consisted of a ten-minute opening comment by each speaker, followed by three discussion questions from Professor Laitos, and a thirty-minute session in which the speakers answered questions from the audience.

Justice Hobbs began by reciting a poem and providing a brief history of water law in Colorado.  He discussed how the terrain of the American West requires the prior appropriation system of water allocations because the riparian system is not realistic in a place where the few sources of water are scattered across an arid landscape.  Water rights, he said, are for the beneficial use of the people, and Colorado’s historical use of the prior appropriation doctrine reflects that reality.

Professor Libecap followed Justice Hobbs’ introduction with a brief explanation of California’s current approach to water allocation.  In California, the riparian doctrine is still used in conjunction with the prior appropriation system.  The state owns the few large water projects that serve the main metropolitan areas, and contracts between water rights holders in the water-rich north and the water-scarce south tend to result in unfair distributions to the detriment of southern water users.  This complicated situation has led to heavy reliance on groundwater supplies, which has caused severe shortages.  Professor Libecap noted that the doctrine of prior appropriation is not to blame for California’s drought situation.  Instead, Mr. Libecap pointed to the ill management of water supplies by state legislators and municipalities.

After the introductory remarks, Professor Laitos directed his first question to the two speakers: Could a “water markets” system or “water capitalism”—where water rights are bought and sold like a commodity—ever replace the prior appropriation system?  Justice Hobbs began by stating that water rights are a type of property right and such rights cannot be bought and sold like a product or commodity.  He said he did not believe system in which water was bought and sold like a commodity could be successful, especially in Colorado because water rights are a public good determined by beneficial use, and although water rights can be owned, the use of such a right is dependent on use by all other owners.  While prior appropriation is an adaptable system and could promote a “water market,” water rights could never be traded like other commodities.  Professor Libecap did not view the prior appropriation system as significantly different from a “water market.”  He noted that there have been many water contracts created in California, and said water acting as a commodity in a water market promotes a more versatile system, with more cooperation between water-rights owners.  Legislators in California are considering the use of legislative mandates to control the current water shortage, but Mr. Libecap insisted that this kind of approach would be unmanageable and inflexible for responding to market and climate changes.

Professor Laitos then asked whether it is old fashioned that in 2016, when our society is more technologically advanced, the largest and most senior water rights holders are still ranchers and farmers as opposed to factories and production sites.  Justice Hobbs argued that Colorado should remain true to its roots, saying that although Coloradans need to find a way to meet the growing water demands of booming urban areas, they should not do so at the detriment of older agricultural water rights holders.  Professor Libecap claimed that the media is misinformed about the actual amount of water used by agricultural producers.  Californian farmers are not opposed to trading or sharing water rights with the urban population; their main concern is that the state legislature will see them as old fashioned and outdated, and will proceed to forcefully take their rights away and reapportion them to others.

Professor Laitos’ final question was whether the speakers believed that the prior appropriation system is equipped to accommodate the countervailing needs of the environment—keeping water in the stream to protect water quality and aquatic wildlife—and of making sure a senior appropriator has enough water—even if it means dewatering that stream? Justice Hobbs responded that prior appropriation is equipped to deal with environmental concerns but that it comes at a cost.  He pointed out that federal legislation has created permitting regulations that overlay Colorado’s prior appropriation system for any new major water projects, but those processes can take fourteen to eighteen years.  Because of the increasing difficulty and uncertainty associated with getting those supplies through new transbasin or storage projects, Front Range municipalities are forced to turn to accelerated water-market acquisition, stoking the fears of buy and dry on the Eastern Plains. Professor Libecap agreed that prior appropriation is perfectly set up to deal with environmental flows. Nevertheless, he cautioned against states like California turning to solutions that involve issuing mandates to protect stream flows, which he called a tax on senior rights holders and one that causes endangered species to become the enemy, thus creating a conflict between local and environmental objectives. Instead, he argued, if states really want to protect stream flows in the long term, they need to turn to market solutions like leases, option contracts, or outright sales to protect that water. That way the environment “owns” it and the farmers benefit financially, both of which prevent the type of conflicts mandates will have down the road.

In the final portion of the debate, the audience asked questions of the speakers. Justice Hobbs clarified that the prior appropriation doctrine used in Colorado does not create the “use it or lose it” problem because the key concept of the prior appropriation system is beneficial use. Applicants are only required to show actual use (historic consumption) and what is left over returns to the stream for the public; thus, nothing is lost.  Then, Professor Libecap commented that the hybrid system currently used in California, when compared to the much more streamlined Colorado system, lacks the clear statutory structure and direction required to create an active and effective “water market.”  Professor Libecap also assuaged the general fear that recreational or aesthetic water use in times of drought are frivolous by noting that such uses are so minuscule that they do not have much impact on broader water issues.  Finally, Justice Hobbs advised that the only problem with the prior appropriation system is management and enforcement of the system; he felt that the government sometimes gave in to pressure from private parties, which decreases the effectiveness of the system.  Justice Hobbs proposed that more administrative control in the future should combat this governmental failing and make the prior appropriation system more successful.

Tina Xu

Image: The Colorado River. Flickr User Rennett Stowe, Creative Commons

 

 


Water, Oil, and Tribal Sovereignty: 

The Fight for the Dakota Access Pipeline

Denver, Colorado

On September 27, 2016, the University of Denver Sturm College of Law hosted a panel discussion about the current legal fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.  The panel addressed legal, historical, social justice, and environmental justice topics related to the dispute.  The discussion was co-sponsored by DU’s Natural Resources & Environmental Law Society, Native American Law Students Association, and the DU Water Law Review.

Professor Fred Cheever, a DU Law professor and co-director of the school’s Environmental & Natural Resources Law Program, moderated the discussion and introduced the issue. The Dakota Access Pipeline (“DAPL”) is an approximately 1,170-mile pipeline constructed to transport crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  The pipeline’s path is intended to span four states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Illinois—and cross the Missouri River at a point located a half-mile from the Standing Rock Indian reservation in North Dakota.  The DAPL route would pass through tribal lands of great cultural, religious and spiritual significance to tribes.

Professor Brad Bartlett, a visiting assistant professor in the Environmental Law Clinic at DU Law, offered a timeline of events regarding the DAPL legal conflict. In July 2016, Earthjustice, on behalf of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, filed a declaratory and injunctive relief complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers).  The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe intervened and joined the lawsuit in August 2016.  In the initial complaint, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”) violated multiple federal statutes, including the Clean Water Act, National Historic Protection Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, when it issued permits to move forward with construction of the DAPL. First, the DAPL’s route is intended to pass under the Missouri River just a half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s reservation boundary. A federal permit is required under the Clean Water Act for any construction project impacting federally regulated rivers —including the DAPL’s crossing of the Missouri River. In this case, the permitting process triggers requirements under the National Historic Protection Act that intend to protect areas of great cultural significance to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, such as sacred sites and burial grounds.  The Tribes argue that the Corps pre-authorized construction of DAPL without ensuring compliance of the National Historic Protection Act, allows the Corps to circumvent its statutory responsibility to ensure that the DAPL does not harm historically and culturally significant sites. The Tribe’s injunctive relief complaint seeks to stop the DAPL from proceeding and causing irreparable harm.

Professor Bartlett oversees DU law students in the environmental law clinic who worked in conjunction with Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP, a national Indian law firm, to file a complaint on behalf of the Yankton Sioux Tribe on September 8, 2016, for declaratory and injunctive relief in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (Yankton Sioux Tribe v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) to stop construction of the DAPL.  The Yankton Sioux Tribe Reservation is located in South Dakota along the Missouri River.  The complaint seeks to prevent the Corps and other federal agencies from violating the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”), the Clean Water Act, the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, and the Administrative Procedures Act.  Specifically, NEPA requires a federal agency to complete an environmental impact statement, including public engagement and detailed comparison of alternatives.  Additionally, the complaint requests that the Corps engage in a more meaningful consultation process with the tribal communities.  Professor Bartlett noted that neither has happened as of September.

On September 9, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Immediately following this decision, the Justice Department, the Department of the Army, and the Department of the Interior issued a joint statement moving to stop construction of the DAPL on land near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation until the Corps could revisit and reconsider previous decisions under federal laws.  The joint statement also requested that tribes and government agencies meet to evaluate the current government-to-government consultation and to determine how to better include tribes in decision-making processes concerning pipeline construction.

Professor Bartlett also noted that the tribal response to the construction of this pipeline has resulted in the largest congregation of Native Americans in the past 100 years.  Police and private security forces have responded with arrests and violence to tribes’ peaceful acts of civil disobedience. As of September 2016 a prayer camp still remains in the area with ongoing protest demonstrations.

The second panelist, Dr. Angel M. Hinzo, is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Interdisciplinary Indigenous Studies at the University of Denver Interdisciplinary Research Institute for the Study of (In)Equality (IRISE) focusing on Native American history from the mid-19th century to the present.  In the panel, Dr. Hinzo recounted how the history of U.S. governmental and tribal relations is characterized by contrasting, and often conflicting, worldviews.  She said the federal government’s extraction of natural resources embodies western values of exploitation for economic gain.  For example, proponents of the DAPL have framed the project as benefiting the public good by creating jobs during the construction phase of the pipeline and contributing to federal sales and income taxes. Tribes, on the other hand, view the same natural resources, as sentient beings to be respected and revered, not exploited. The current DAPL conflict illustrates this fundamental difference in worldview because the pipeline would transport crude oil over an area rich in cultural and natural resources.  Historically, according to Dr. Hinzo, the Corps—the oldest agency dealing with natural resources in the United States—has harmed native lands and the environment.

Additionally, Dr. Hinzo raised concerns that the construction of pipeline threatens local tribal burial sites.  In September 2016, the pipeline construction company—Dakota Access LLC—destroyed burial sites near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation to build the DAPL.  Dr. Hinzo emphasized that the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) provides regulations to protect culturally significant sites during infrastructure projects, which the Corps and pipeline workers did not respect. Dr. Hinzo also argued that discussions around the DAPL need to better address the NAGPRA. Lastly, Dr. Hinzo noted the social costs associated with the oil-and-gas boom in North Dakota. Communities living near fossil fuel extraction have witnessed an increase in violence and sex trafficking.  Low income tribal communities living near the proposed route of the DAPL, who already experience difficulty with these issues, are increasingly at risk.

The panel’s third speaker, Mr. David Neslin, is of counsel at Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP in Denver, Colorado.  He previously managed the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission within the state’s Department of Natural Resources, which regulates all oil and gas development in Colorado.  During his career, Mr. Neslin has also represented multiple tribes in natural resource–extraction issues.

First, Mr. Neslin noted that the sole issue of the preliminary injunction action was whether the Corps violated federal laws when it issued permits allowing construction of the DAPL to move forward.  In general, preliminary injunctive relief actions seek to halt a project and maintain the status quo until the court has a chance to go through the full litigation process and resolve the issue.  Consequently, the court’s denial of the injunction in this case was a narrow decision because it did not go to trial or produce a full development of record.  Next, Mr. Neslin spoke about the importance of the administrative record to the court’s decision and how this case represents a good example of why it is vital for parties to develop and convey a cohesive narrative to the court.  While people can disagree about the substance of such records, he said that the Corps adequately documented its compliance and “checked all the boxes” needed to comply with federal regulations as to tribal consultations and environmental impacts of the DAPL.  As noted earlier, the federal government is required to provide permits under the Clean Water Act to allow the DAPL to move forward, triggering requirements under the National Historic Protection Act to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  Because the Corp followed and completed steps outlined in the permitting process, Judge Boasberg denied the tribes’ motions for an injunction.  Mr. Neslin argued that it was the Department of Justice’s multiple affidavits, for example, that illustrated the ways in which the Corps took the proper steps in allowing the DAPL to move forward.  The tribes, he said, could have done a better job of illustrating and citing examples to the court of the DAPL’s impacts on tribal cultural resources.  Finally, Mr. Neslin noted that the district court opinion serves as a reminder of the potency of judicial deference toward agency decision making in cases like this.  Traditionally, courts defer to agencies—such as the Environmental Protection Agency—to determine whether infrastructure projects have followed proper procedure when considering environmental and cultural impacts.  When not one overarching agency exists to ensure proper compliance, as in the case of the DAPL, multiple federal agencies follow their own processes when dealing with a discrete aspect of the overall project.  Mr. Neslin said that federal segmentation of this kind results in piecemealed environmental and cultural impact assessments, overlooking the potential for studying the impacts of the project as a whole.

The final panelist, Ms. Heather Whiteman Runs Him, is a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund (“NARF”) in Boulder, Colorado, where she works on tribal water and natural resource rights issues.  She provided an overview of tribal water rights and upcoming meetings between tribes and the U.S. government to evaluate current administrative consultation requirements.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that NARF’s role in the current DAPL actions is to coordinate multiple amicus briefs in support of tribes’ ongoing defense. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that the foundation of tribal water rights under federal law rests on the Winters Decision, which says that the establishment of an Indian reservation includes an implied reservation of water for future use in an amount necessary to fulfill the needs of the reservation.

While Winters recognized tribal rights to water, Ms. Whiteman Runs Him noted, some tribes are working with state and federal governments to quantify their water rights and build water infrastructure in order to put their water to use.  Currently twenty-nine tribes have settled their water rights, while many more have not.  Settlement negotiations are generally expensive, lengthy, and multi-step processes that involve analyzing the land base of the reservation, hydrology, soil science, economics, etc. Ms. Whiteman Runs Him emphasized that neither the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe nor the Yankton Sioux Tribe have either quantified or settled their reservation water rights, but that does not diminish the Tribes’ rights to a reliable and safe water supply for their citizens.  These tribes have concerns about the DAPL’s affect on their water supply because the pipeline’s proposed route traverses the Missouri River, a major municipal water source to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation, and the point of diversion for its drinking water.

Ms. Whiteman Runs Him explained that federal agencies are required to establish policies and procedures to meet the consultation standards of the National Historic Protection Act.  Most federal agencies have established such policies; the Corps, however, has a history of failing to comply with federal standards in regard to tribal sovereignty.  Ms. Whiteman Runs Him believes that federal agencies need to “make the letter of the law match the spirit of the law” by not only requiring the Corps meet requirements of the administrative process, but also implementing requirements in a way that is meaningful to the intent of the regulations.

One major point illuminated throughout the panel discussion and the question and answer period is the adequacy of a permitting process that allowed the DAPL to move forward in the face of federal trust obligations to tribes.  As previously mentioned, the permitting process for the DAPL requires certain mitigation activities under federal regulations to ensure proper treatment of sacred sites.  While federal agencies may have completed the required steps to receive permits, the tribes argue that such steps lack substance and do not adequately and meaningfully consider tribal input.  While the permitting process may be administratively sufficient, many question whether the process actually fulfills spirit of the federal trust obligations to substantively consult and include tribal input.

Lindsey Ratcliff

Image: The Dakota Access Pipeline being installed between farms, as seen from 50th Avenue in New Salem, North Dakota. Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.