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

 

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

ADDRESSING COMPETING OBLIGATIONS UNDER COMPACTS & THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT

In this panel, Karen Kwon and James “Jay” Tutchton presented differing sides of ongoing conflicts between the federal law and state water compacts concerning the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”).  Kwon, from the Office of the Colorado Attorney General, works in water compact litigation and negotiations.  She has contributed to two amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States regarding state compact issues.  Tutchton has been a public interest environmental attorney for over twenty years, and he is currently a Senior Staff Attorney with the Defenders of Wildlife.  Federico Cheever, an environmental law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law who has written about the ESA, moderated the panel.

First, Kwon offered her approach to this conflict.  She began with a brief recitation of the implications the ESA has among interstate relations.  For instance, the ESA affects water and wildlife management between states because endangered species recovery in one state can affect water supplies in other areas.  Additionally, the ESA implicates the allocation and use of compact water.  Recovery of underwater species under the ESA often requires reserving a steady water supply for recuperation efforts.

 

Then, Ms. Kwon focused on the state perspective of this competition and described several values that Coloradans hold.  First, Coloradans value their environment.  Conserving and promoting species promotes that way of life.  Second, that quality of life requires a certain availability in water supply.  Attaining a reliable supply of water helps to preserve species and further Coloradans’ way of life.  Finally, Coloradans seek to maintain their ability to manage the resources within their borders.

Kwon next analyzed the ESA and discussed its advantages and disadvantages.  One of its advantages is that lawyers can use it as a tool to effectuate change.  Through litigation, lawyers can try to modify or stop projects that jeopardize endangered species.  Another point in the law’s favor, the ESA protections have proven successful in preventing extinction.  On the other hand, the ESA’s disadvantages include the fact that very few species have recovered to the point that they can leave the endangered species list.  Also, some view the ESA as a threat instead of a tool because the ESA threatens liability for those who do not adhere to its guidelines.  Finally, the ESA contains no long-term incentives looking to the future.  Instead, it focuses on present happenings and immediate incentives.

Before posing her solution, Kwon presented two examples in Colorado of conflicts between the ESA and compacts: the Delta Smelt in the Bay Delta and the Silvery Minnow in the Rio Grande.  The Delta Smelt conflict could dramatically cut the amount of water flowing to Southern California and directly affect the Colorado River.  The Silvery Minnow conflict involves a dwindling fish population in the Rio Grande River, which divides several states’ waters.

Kwon’s proposed solution to this problem is as follows: fit species conservation within the existing structure of water allocation in and between states.  Through this framework, states can create long-term goals and accomplish them while working within the ESA’s parameters.  Additionally, states may find flexibilities under the ESA to allow compliance with water compacts while recovering species.  Kwon then offered several examples from Colorado that embody this solution.  First, a Colorado policy, the Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Colorado Water Conservation Board (“CWCB”) work to “keep species common” and to recover and de-list already-endangered species.  To do this, the two entities collaborate with public and private groups to collect, exchange, and analyze data and resources on endangered species.  Overall, they use this data to collaborate and try to intervene before listing species as endangered.

Another example illustrating Kwon’s proposed solution concerns the Upper Colorado Recovery Program.  In this program, several public and private entities collaborate to recover four endangered species of fish in the Upper Colorado River without interfering with water rights or compacts.  The program avoids this interference by implementing flow augmentation, monitoring non-native fish, screening large diversions, and constructing fish ladders to help habitat access.  Through these actions, the program maintains compliance with the ESA while promoting the recovery of several endangered fish.  Kwon also mentioned a third example: a water lease in the 15-Mile Reach in Colorado.  Through this action, the CWCB leases approximately twelve thousand acre-feet to preserve the natural environment flows in that area and maintain the goals of the parties involved, such as water use and development.

Kwon summarized by re-emphasizing that the challenges facing species are growing, such as a lack of both long-term solutions and scientific consensus.  In order to combat these challenges, she stressed that water advocates must collaborate and utilize scientific methods.

Tutchton took the podium next, and he started by explaining that the ESA’s process, like a play, consists of “acts.”  In the first “act,” the ESA prescribes the requirements for listing a species as endangered. Researchers utilize the best available science to determine whether extinction poses a danger to a species or a distinct population segment of vertebrate.  The second “act” includes the consultation process, during which the government re-thinks its activities in light of the listing.  This portion prohibits the federal government from making the species’ situation worse.  Finally, the third “act” prohibits anyone from “taking” the endangered species.  In this context, both killing a member of the species and destroying its habitat constitutes a “taking.”

According to Tutchton, the ESA is a paper tiger.  That is, it looks tough, but lawyers may easily disarm it.  In practice, the ESA only removes or modifies the worst-of-the-worst projects.  In the water world, however, Tutchton concedes that the ESA commonly helps water species gain protection and escape extinction.  He attributes this characteristic to the fact-heavy situations and objective, scientific determination. An apparent advantage for water wildlife is that researchers can collect data to calculate with scientific precision the results of a particular action, and thus protect endangered water species from peril.  For example, Tutchton mentioned one case where the predicted extinction of a three-inch fish overruled the construction of a dam.  In that case, researchers produced enough data to conclude the species would become extinct if developers built the dam and blocked its construction.

Next, Tutchton briefly mentioned that one can comply with both of the laws of the river, and then quickly turned to the success of the ESA.  For instance, while the government has de-listed relatively few species, the ESA’s regulations have seen success in perpetuating the survival of listed species.  Going against those that criticize the ESA for a lack of de-listing, Tutchton admitted the ability of the species to recover depends on the means one wants to use.  Certainly more drastic measures can get faster results, but those drastic measures may venture beyond one’s comfort zone.  In practice, the small measures produce small effects, often resulting in maintenance or slow growth of a species.

Additionally, while Tutchton understands the desire for local control, he argued several counterpoints.  First, all species, as national resources, are of national interest.  All people, no matter where they live, have an equal right to enjoy the nation’s wildlife.  Furthermore, the need to list a species represents a local failure of conservation.  The federal government does not manage wildlife until after listing occurs.  Then, the federal government steps in to intervene for the endangered species.  Finally, Tutchton admitted that handing control back to the state, which often caused the endangered status, disappoints him.

Then, Tutchton touched on the issue of drought.  He declared that Westerners routinely live in a drought.  In fact, he hopes people in Colorado and the West more generally remove the word “drought” from their vocabularies, as these areas normally experience little or no precipitation.  Furthermore, Westerners should consider rain or snow an abnormality, especially in states located in a former dust bowl.  Thus, organizations should expect drought-like weather and act in accordance with the expected conditions.

Finally, Tutchton spoke about the future of the ESA.  First, he pointed out the ESA underrepresents real life.  The ESA currently protects fifteen-hundred species, but scientists speculate that number should be around six or eight thousand.  Next, he mentioned that species originally evolved before humans changed the earth’s landscape.  Wildlife originally developed when rivers regularly flooded and followed their natural course.  Now, humans use rivers for transportation and for development.  Creating and managing the workarounds needed to protect the species will only present more difficulty as human development continues. Tutchton summarized by emphasizing that he favors ESA litigation, as it helps to represent underrepresented points of view in critical ventures.

            Connor Pace


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

 

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

COLORADO RIVER COMPACT ISSUES AFFECTING THE NAVAJO WATER PROJECTS

At the University of Denver Water Law Review’s Annual Symposium, Assistant Attorney General and member of the Water Rights Unit of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice (“NNDOJ”), Stanley Pollack, spoke about issues and challenges the Colorado River Compact pose to the Navajo Nation’s water projects.  The mission of NNDOJ’s Water Rights Unit is to protect the water rights of the Navajo Nation.  The NNDOJ, as the Navajo Nation’s representative in state and federal litigation, is currently pursuing five general stream adjudications.

Pollack prefaced his presentation by focusing on various Colorado River issues and how interstate compacts put different restraints on Navajo water development, particularly in the context of drinking water projects.  Pollack emphasized the need to provide drinking water to the Navajo Nation.  Pollack pointed out that thirty to forty percent of the Navajo physically haul their drinking water in barrels.  Pollack illustrated this point with a picture drawn by an elementary school student from Lake Valley, New Mexico.  The picture was one of many drawings elementary school children submitted during the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project (“Supply Project”) hearings.  The drawings were supposed to depict what water meant to the children and the importance of water.  The drawing Pollack showed was of a pick-up truck with two large barrels with the word “water” written on them in the truck’s bed.  This drawing demonstrated that there were generations of children within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation that do not think drinking water is something that comes out of a faucet, but from a barrel in the back of a truck.

Pollack then asked the audience to imagine themselves as members of the Navajo before the explorative efforts of the Europeans.  He showed aerial maps of what the Navajo Nation used to be in contrast to what it became after European migration and the establishment of the United States.  The Navajo called their homeland Dinétah, and it encompasses the land between the Four Sacred Mountains: Mount Blanca, in Southern Colorado; Mount Taylor, in New Mexico; San Francisco Peak, in Arizona; and Mount Hesperus, in Colorado.  What becomes evident, said Pollack, is that this is high desert country, subject to a dry and arid climate with little development.  He emphasized that the Navajo had been thriving in this area for hundreds of years, until the day when foreign people came along and began drawing boundaries on the land.

 

The first boundary was the establishment of the Navajo Reservation.  The reservation greatly reduced the land that the Navajo called home.  Next, state boundaries began forming and the Navajo saw the U.S. government parcel up its homeland, subjecting them to boundary lines the Navajo had no say in forming.  Then, in 1922, the Navajo saw the U.S. government divide the Colorado River Basin into an upper and lower basin.  Pollack explained that, once again, the United States subjected the Navajo to boundaries they had no say in forming, but must abide.  Pollack noted that with each boundary line came new political constraints on the Navajo.  The boundaries told the Navajo where they could and could not live and what they could and could not do on the land.  These restrictions imposed limits on what the Navajo could do with their water, and that, Pollack said, is what he wanted to discuss.

Pollack quoted the language of Article VII of the Colorado River Compact: “nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligation of the United States to the Indian tribes.”  He said that by this language, the rules and boundaries on the map should not apply to the tribes.  However, in reality, this is not the case.  The Navajo finds themselves almost entirely in the Colorado River Basin—upper and lower—and within the three states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.  The geography of the Navajo Nation, Pollack said, makes it difficult to protect the water rights of the Navajo because there are so many entities at play, each with its own rules, regulations, and characteristics.

Pollack then rhetorically asked why, if the language of the compact really meant what it said, is providing water to the Navajo such a problem.  He answered this by saying that, as an attorney for the NNDOJ, he can litigate and litigate, but at the end of the day, only Congress has the power to authorize a water development plan for the tribes.  Therefore, Congress will use that power as it sees fit, and, ultimately, litigation is a “hollow exercise.”  Litigation yields merely paper water rights, and the people Pollack represents cannot drink water from the paper he might obtain in litigation.  Consequently, when the Navajo want to develop their water, they must go to Congress and request the funding necessary for that project.  In doing so, they have to make sure that what they want to do fits within the political systems in place.  Pollack explained that the Colorado River Basin is not just about where the watersheds are on a map or the water within the system, but rather the areas that can receive water because of the Colorado River System.

Pollack next discussed how the upper basin is composed of the parts of the upper-basin-states Lee Ferry serves.  Lee Ferry is the dividing point between the upper and lower basins.  The lower basin is composed of those parts of the states without the drainage of the Colorado River system.  This means any part of a state, whether in the upper or lower basin, is really part of the upper basin if water from the upper basin can serve it.

The only parts of New Mexico considered part of the Colorado River Basin are in the lower basin, Pollack said.  He then displayed a map and pointed out the Navajo Nation, the San Juan River Basin, and the New Mexico Water Rights Settlement.  The centerpiece of the New Mexico settlement, Pollack said, is the Supply Project.  He explained that there are two pipelines coming from the San Juan River that serve communities in the upper basin and lower basin in New Mexico, the Rio Grande area, and Arizona.  Pollack noted that this creates four different communities needing water delivery.  Delivering water from the San Juan River to communities in the upper basin of New Mexico requires little transportation because the communities use water from the upper basin.  Pollack further explained that the geographical location of the upper basin makes sending water to the Rio Grande very simple, but sending water to the lower basin more difficult because the lower basin has the drainage of the Colorado River System.

It is as odd paradox, Pollack continued, that the rules essentially encourage an out-of-basin use of water by sending water to the Rio Grande where there is no return flow to the Colorado River.  While, at the same time, the rules are set up against using water in the lower basin where there is the drainage of the Colorado River System because the waters below Lee Ferry can serve the lower basin.  However, in 2003, Pollack went to the Upper Colorado River Commission and persuaded the body to allow the Supply Project to deliver water from the upper basin to the lower basin, provided that the Supply Project consider the water use as an upper basin use.  What is important about this, Pollack said, is that the states can work together to find solutions to interstate problems even though the laws of the river on their face do not allow for such actions.

Pollack concluded his speech by introducing a pipeline project that he said is still “a pipe dream.”  The project, called the Western Navajo Pipeline, would deliver water to the Western portion of the Navajo Nation.  Pollack explained that the Western portion of the Navajo Nation is an area to which it is particularly difficult to get water because there are no sources of ground or surface water apart from the Colorado River.  This forces most Navajo to haul their water.  Pollack asserted that because it is so hard to get water from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the Navajo should get water from Lake Powell.  Therefore, he proposed to pump water from Lake Powell above the basin, and then pump it down into the Western Navajo area.  Pollack thinks that the precedent set from the New Mexico settlement, as well as the Upper Basin Resolution from 2003, should allow this pipeline pipe dream to become a reality.

Tucker Allen


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

Denver, Colorado                          April 8, 2016

THE COLORADO RIVER SYSTEM:  PERSPECTIVES FROM THE LOWER BASIN

Ted Kowalski, Chief of the Interstate, Federal & Water Information Section of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, moderated a panel at the University of Denver Water Law Review Annual Symposium featuring three speakers addressing different perspectives from the Lower Basin.

The first speaker was Bill Hasencamp, Manager of Colorado River Resources, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“MWD”).  Hasencamp represented the municipal provider perspective on the panel.  MWD covers a one trillion dollar economy, 5,200 square mile service area, and—as one of the largest water providers in the country— approximately nineteen million residents.  Hasencamp explained how the drought in the 1990s forced Southern California to rethink the way it rationed water.  In response to the drought, Southern California devised an integrated resource plan for meeting reliability needs of the region.  The plan focused on agricultural to urban transfers and augmenting the dry year water supply with storage.  According to Hasencamp, the plan was effective, but maintaining the water supply has been a challenge for several reasons.

One challenge has been the geography of the delta between Northern and Southern California.  According to Hasencamp, the state water project receives water from the Sacramento River that comes into the delta from the North.  The pumps for both the state water and central valley project are both in the South.  Therefore, in order for the water to move between Northern and Southern California, it must move through the delta.  Unfortunately, fish swim too close to the pump and, in order to protect them, state and federal environmental regulations have forced Southern California to reduce pumping with increasing frequency.  Hasencamp explained that this year alone, during the worst drought in California’s history, California lost nearly a million acre-feet of water because fish were swimming too close to the intake.  In addition to fisheries, other long-term risks on the delta include seismic concerns with the bay area fault, as well as rising seal levels.  Hasencamp warned that if catastrophe hit, the delta could become an inland sea, and that this might prohibit the pumping of water for years.

Hasencamp then asserted that the focus needs to be on getting the delta functioning again in a way that will protect the environment and meet the water needs of the state.  Hasencamp explained that MWD believes the way to do that is through tunnels under the delta.  With tunnels, if a catastrophe occurred and the delta failed, Southern California would not lose pumping as the state could still receive water from the river upstream.  Tunnels would also ensure that Southern California could obtain water in a way that protects fish from pumps.  The plan is currently up for approval and Hasencamp is hopeful that it will pass.

Another challenge for California has been the apportionment on the Colorado River.  Hasencamp explained that a series of compacts and agreements give each state a certain allocation of the Colorado River.  After fifty years, California saw a dramatic reduction in its apportionments under the Colorado River Compact.  As a result, the state had to develop a plan to limit water intake in order to live within the reduced allocation.  In response, California developed a plan with other states to keep the Colorado River Aqueduct full until the year 2016.  Through the combination of special surplus water and agricultural to urban transfers, the aqueduct would theoretically have stayed full until 2016.  However, Hasencamp described a catch in the plan: Lake Mead had to remain at least two-thirds full.  Unfortunately, as he explained, MWD did not anticipate the worst drought in the history of the Colorado Basin.  As a result, Southern California did not receive the anticipated water from the river and instead had to shift its focus locally toward developing recycling, desalination, groundwater recovery, and conservation plans.  Hasencamp briefly discussed some of these plans including implementing agricultural conservation measures with Imperial Irrigation District (“IID”) to grow the same crops with less water; lining the American and Coachella canals; developing programs to incentivize farmers not to grow crops; entering a water sharing agreement with Nevada; and developing the Lake Mead Storage Program.  Hasencamp explained that even as the drought in California continues, extra water does exist.  Unfortunately, California cannot pump the water so they are still receiving drought allocations.  In conclusion, he suggested that fixing the delta would help to alleviate this tension.

The second speaker was Chuck Cullom, Manager of Colorado River Programs, Central Arizona Project (“CAP”).  He represented an agricultural and urban perspective.  To begin, Cullom gave a brief overview of the Colorado River System describing it as “the engine of the west.”  While not even in the top twenty largest rivers in North America, the Colorado has four times the annual run-off in storage capacity.  CAP delivers water to four million people in Arizona, provides water for cities and irrigation, and has the most diverse customer classes in the Colorado River system, serving eleven tribes, ten irrigation districts, and ten cities.

Like Hasencamp, Cullom emphasized the steady decline in Lake Mead and the implications it had for CAP.  Currently, the Lower Basin runs at a deficit of about 1.2 million acre-feet every year.  In accordance with the compact, MWD and California have invested billions to reduce their water use from 5.1 to 4.4 million acre-feet, and, still, Lake Mead is declining.  The decline undermines the effectiveness of these cooperative agreements.  Cullom explained that from CAP’s perspective, it must bear the burden of this shortage from what, it believes, is a shared obligation.  The Colorado River system is a linked system of seven states in the Lower Basin.  As the reservoir declines, the reductions grow.  When Lake Mead evaporates, apportionments do not factor in that reduction.  But through cooperative agreements, states have been able to define what shortages will look like in the Lower Basin.

During the first anticipated shortage, Cullom clarified that CAP’s underground water storage will diminish and agriculture customers could be cut by more than half.  In light of the persistent long term risk of shortage, CAP has developed several responses.  First, it has invested millions into storing water underground to protect users from shortages.  Second, like MWD and IID partners in California, CAP has begun storing water in Lake Mead to prop the reservoir up in order to avoid immediate shortage issues and reduce the risk of long-term shortage issues.  CAP has reduced annual diversion by between 140,000-180,000 acre-feet.  By the end of this year, CAP will have stored 345,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead.

Cullom concluded by emphasizing that the structural deficit creates a long-term risk to all Lower Basin Colorado River users and undermines the ability to become cooperative and collaborative partners.  CAP is attempting to follow the lead of California in developing proactive steps to reduce its use, but also is looking to collaborate and cooperate with Lower Basin partners to assist and share in those additional reductions.

The final speaker was Kevin Kelly, General Manager of IID.  He represented the irrigation perspective in a district with the largest number of agricultural to urban transfers in the nation.  According to Kelly, because California has been exceeding its 4.4 million acre-foot entitlement to the Colorado River, IID entered into transfer agreements to bring California “back in line.”  As Kelly explained though, “the only dangling question mark is the Salton Sea.”

According to Kelly, Imperial Valley is an economically-challenged community with 450,000 acres in active cultivation.  Because of the vast farmland and economic nature of the community, the recession of the Salton Sea will have devastating impact on the Imperial Valley.  When the Salton Sea issue first arose, the state of California took responsibility for handling it, focusing primarily on restoration.  However, as Kelly explained, California failed to fulfill its responsibility.  In 2014, in order to bring this issue to the forefront, IID filed a petition with its own state water board.  It informed California of its failure to meet the task of tackling the Salton Sea problem and requested the state board resolve the Salton Seat question as a condition of the transfers.

By the year 2047, 74,000 acres of lakebed will lay exposed, and the water elevation will be negative 249,090 feet.  To address the issue, IID suggests filling up the lakebed with habitat and renewable energy projects.  Kelly argued that renewable energy projects would be especially effective because the same exposed lakebed in the Salton Sea happens to correspond with this hemisphere’s largest untapped geothermal resource.  Kelly asserted that this resource could replace the lost generation at the San Onofre nuclear plant.  Yet, unlike the plant, the Salton Sea would have virtually no emissions.

Kelly noted that California has the most aggressive renewable portfolio standard in the nation as well as the most ambitious greenhouse gas reduction bills.  But in the last four years since San Onofre went down, air in California has become markedly more polluted.  According to Kelly, geothermal energy should be an integral part of the solution to filling up the exposed lakebed.  Kelly argued that IID could not enter another quantification settlement agreement when it is struggling to implement the first one.  At the end of his speech, he posed a rhetorical question: When you pit agriculture against all the other uses in California, who decides whose economic project is more important?  Kelly answered: “In a diversified economy in the southwest, agriculture needs to count for something.”

Neillie Fields


I. Introduction

Under the doctrine of prior appropriation, the acquisition of water rights is based on the principle: first in time, first in right. As a result, this system has the capacity to create winners (the senior water rights holders) and losers (the junior or no water rights holders). In times of drought, this problem is exacerbated.

In Estate of Steed v. New Escalante Irrigation Co., the Supreme Court of Utah rejected a proposal for balancing the interests of senior and junior water rights owners. Instead, the court concluded that “both parties cannot ‘win’ [because] the law simply favors the first user.” The court stated that “when there is not enough water to satisfy the needs of all users, the user who depends upon another’s seepage and runoff will suffer.”

Citing a strong policy of conservation underlying its water law as the reason for its decision, the court refused to recognize that return flows—resulting from the inefficient irrigation practice existing at the time—were legitimate means of supplying water rights to others. Although acknowledging that water users may appropriate wastewater and obtain protection against junior appropriators, the court stated that Utah water law encourages improvements in irrigation efficiency and the junior water appropriator of wastewater cannot compel the continued wasteful use of water. The adoption of improved and more efficient conservation technologies thereby brought benefits to the irrigator, including increased crop production and lower irrigation costs, but unfortunately, this development occurred at the expense of junior water-right holders. The result is increased pressure on an already over-appropriated Western water system and a greater divide between the “winners” and “losers.” While the court encouraged farmers to conserve and efficiently use water to ensure they retain all of their allocated water rights, this ruling discouraged the spread of water rights to different uses.

In the face of a changing climate and increasing urbanization in the West, water transfers could help arid regions meet growing demands for water through implementation of voluntary market-based sales and leases of water rights. Water rights may be transferred by sale, lease, or exchange. A water transfer is a voluntary agreement that results in a change in the type, time or place of use of a water right. A transfer may not exceed the quantity of rights held by the transferor, but may change the use of the water, the location, the time it is released, and the point of diversion. Water transfers are a means of making water available to those who don’t hold senior water rights. Water transfers can facilitate and enable the use of water, as necessary, for agricultural, municipal, industrial energy and environmental uses. Such transfers afford the opportunity to maximize the use of the available water supplies and promote the most efficient use of water.

Transfers of water could also be used to mitigate the impact of the holding in Estate of Steed, which ultimately promoted the inefficient use of water. Water transfers could potentially help balance the interests of senior and junior water rights owners by encouraging the water rights holder to better conserve his or her water and lease the remaining water rights for a limited time. As a result, this water will become available for junior water rights holders for the market price.

While voluntary water transfers have occurred for years, there are many barriers that water appropriators face when attempting to transfer water, including the lack of accurate and reliable information. Currently there is a high demand for water to be transferred from agriculture to uses that return higher economic benefits. This is most clearly evidenced by the circumstances of farmers in Northern California who hold senior water rights. With droughts plaguing arid climates, farmers are finding that their most valuable asset is no longer their crops, but rather their water rights. Therefore, farmers often face a choice between fallowing a field to lease out that water or continuing to farm the land without leasing any of the water rights.

This economic dilemma—which results in either an inefficient use of water resources or a loss in profits for a farmer—may soon disappear with changes in technology. Recently, farmers have found a third option that allows them to continue farming the land while implementing efficiency measures to significantly reduce water use for the same crop yield and then leasing that saved water to others in a high-demand market. A new technology, Sustainable Water and Innovative Irrigation Management (SWIIM), could provide the information necessary to help facilitate water transfers, and, thus, maximize the utility of this precious and dwindling resource. SWIIM helps farmers (1) conserve water; (2) more easily prove conservation efforts and successes to regulators more easily; and, (3) lease their excess water to municipalities, industrial users, or other farmers and individuals seeking additional water resources.

II. Non-Use, Forfeiture, and the Difficulty of Proving Conservation Encourage Waste—the Law Behind Estate of Steed

Water rights acquired by prior appropriation may be lost if the allocated water is not fully consumed each year. The general rule is that as soon as the water leaves an appropriator’s land and enters, or is destined for, a natural stream, it becomes subject to appropriation by other users. Typically, in farming only a portion of the allocated water is actually consumed for irrigation. The amount that does return to the stream—return flow—thereafter becomes available for others to divert.

Appropriators may also lose their water rights if they do not use their water for a significant period of time. Non-use for a significant period of time, coupled with intent to relinquish water rights, is sufficient to constitute abandonment of a water right. However, because water is such a scarce commodity, it is rare that a right holder will have the requisite intent to abandon a right. More likely, the water right holder may lose its water right despite the absence of any intent to do so under a forfeiture statute for non-use. Under the forfeiture statute for non-use, those appropriators who fail to beneficially use all of their allotted water, risk losing the rights to this water.

Although conserving water is a beneficial use and therefore will not result in a reduction of water rights, the burden is on the appropriator to prove such conservation to the authorities. Unfortunately, calculating the amount of water conserved is very complicated and an imprecise. Accordingly, rather than risk losing valuable water rights, appropriators, like the farmers in the Estate of Steed, are thereby discouraged from adopting more efficient methods of operation and conserving water to lease. Instead, water appropriators have a financial incentive to use all of their water rights, however inefficient such use may be, to avoid the risk of forfeiture. This logical consequence of our current system promotes the inefficient and illogical incentive to flood lands and reuse instead of applying that extra water to a more productive use that will return higher environmental, economic, and social benefits.

The transfer of water is further complicated when the water rights are conveyed separately or there is a different use contemplated. The laws of water take extra precaution by ensuring that the rights of other stream appropriators are not negatively impaired. This special protection comes in the form of the no-harm rule.

In sum, farmers who reduce water use do not necessarily see their “savings” translate into that same amount of conserved water being available to lease to someone else for a different—and possibly more important—use. Rather many farmers conclude that the lack of information available to senior appropriators makes it extraordinarily difficult to transfer water, and the possibility of losing their unused water rights is too great to risk implementing more efficient conservation technologies. As a result, these right holders have been notoriously resistant to water conservation because the legal system has created a financial disincentive that actually promotes inefficient use. In effect, the overly complicated process of transferring water actually discourages water conservation and creates a perverse motivation for farmers to overwater their crops merely to avoid losing water rights.

III. The Short-Term Solution: Transfer of Water

Water transfers could be one method of allowing water managers to combat drought-riddled areas and repurpose existing water resources for new and more beneficial uses. Transfers of water could help improve farming practices, further energy development, and meet the demands of increasing urbanization. States can also develop new infrastructure and storage capabilities, implement conservation and efficiency initiatives, and promote water reuse projects.

In general, water transfers are done on an ad-hoc basis and there are barriers to overcome. In particular, measurement poses a difficult problem for authorities attempting to regulate use. This problem is exacerbated by the limited data available on the amount of water used. However, SWIIM can help facilitate the transfer of water; and thereby help farmers sell their extra water so it could be utilized for other uses. SWIIM has the capacity to accomplish these tasks by allowing farmers to assess all of their economic options. The program instructs the farmer on what crops can be grown, the expected yields that can be anticipated from each of these various crop options, and the amount of water required to achieve the various crop yields. SWIIM is also a tool that provides a guide to the farming interest in how to sell or lease water rights, thereby enabling the farm to retain a sufficient amount of their water rights to continue productive farming. Most importantly, this new system can work in a manner that is consistent with the western doctrine of prior appropriation and still help expedite water transfers. As a result, the prior appropriation doctrine may continue serving as the legal framework to guide the allocation of water resources, while incorporating the flexibility to meet evolving needs through the promotion of more efficient utilization of water rights in a rapidly changing environment.

SWIIM’s software enables farmers to lease their extra water to others. This program allows farmers to quote the availability of water and provide it to other users who need this resource—sharing the water for the best and most efficient use. Farmers who hold the most senior water rights in a region will no longer have the economic incentive to flood their fields with little regard for efficiency. Instead, this program creates a new opportunity for both the farmer in particular and society in general, whereby the farmer maximizes the economic return on the use of water and others can receive the benefit of a limited resource that would otherwise be unavailable.

To utilize the program, the farmers must enter detailed information about past use of their land and water rights and then identify measures that they are willing to adopt to reduce water use. Using data from irrigation districts, field instruments, weather reports, satellites, and low-altitude flights, the SWIIM software calculates in real time how much of a farm’s water is consumed and how much returns to underground flows—thereby ensuring that farmers do not jeopardize their rights if they choose to sell or lease their conserved water. Using the information provided, an algorithm developed jointly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture informs farmers how to conserve water, by adopting efficient measures such as a targeted drip-irrigation system that will not result in reduced productivity.

IV. Conclusion

With an influx of population and industries settling in the water-scarce West, combined with an increasingly arid climate, SWIIM could help evaluate and facilitate how society utilizes water transfers as a means of allocating a vital resource. This technology will enable stakeholders to learn from other’s experiences with water transfers, thereby facilitating more informed and efficient decisions with respect to the use of their water rights. SWIIM facilitates water transfers to other uses while avoiding inflicting harm to agricultural economies and surrounding communities.

The law encourages implementation of improvements in water systems to promote the conservation of water. However, to effectively implement such improvements, water rights owners should not be penalized for conserving water. Instead, there should be an incentive system to economically reward implementing water conservation practices. SWIIM offers a market-based solution that could be regulated to ensure there is equal water distribution to municipalities and individuals in need of this vital resource. The purpose of water transfers and the utilization of the SWIIM system, is not to “dry” up the farm. Rather, it is to move the water efficiently where needed, without adverse economic consequences to the senior right holder. When we “free-up” the water, we can grow as a society, conserve water and utilize the flexibility that the prior appropriation doctrine is intended to allow.

Managing California’s complex water storage and delivery system is a never-ending balancing act between supply, demand and environmental considerations, particularly during a severe drought. As water scarcity reaches unprecedented extremes in the West, SWIIM technology could help mitigate the impact in the region. It provides one method of managing drought and is a welcome new addition to the state’s water market.

References

See generally Gunnison Irrigation Co. v. Gunnison Highland Canal Co., P. 852 (1918).

See generally Estate of Steed v. New Escalante Irr. Co., 846 P.2d 1223, 1228 (Utah 1992).

SWIIM home, http://www.swiimsystem.com/home.aspx, (last accessed September 23, 2015).

DAVID H. GETCHES, WATER LAW IN A NUTSHELL (5th ed. 2015).

Hallie Jackson and Elizabeth Chuck, Farmers Faced With Whether to Grow Crops or Sell Water, April 4, 2015, http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/california-drought/grow-crops-or-sell-water-california-farmers-face-dilemma-n335696.

Greta Kraul, Airbnb for water seeks to help farmers transfer surplus, S.F. GATE (April 21, 2015) http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Airbnb-for-water-seeks-to-help-farmers-transfer-6215032.php.

A. DAN TARLOCK ET AL., WATER RESOURCE MANAGEMENT A CASEBOOK IN LAW AND PUBLIC POLICY (Robert C. Clark et al. eds., 7th ed. 2002).

“The Story of Regenesis Management Group: Balancing Water Use for Profit and Conservation” (PDF). COLORADO WATER, NEWSLETTER OF THE WATER CENTER OF COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY 28 (1): 19.

Lorraine Chow, Can This ‘Airbnb for Water’ Help Drought-Stricken Farmers?, ECO WATCH, (April 27, 2015) http://ecowatch.com/2015/04/27/swiim-app-drought-farmers/.

Greta Kraul, Airbnb for water seeks to help farmers transfer surplus, S.F. GATE (April 21, 2015) http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Airbnb-for-water-seeks-to-help-farmers-transfer-6215032.php.

Larua Bliss, It’s About to Get Easier For California Farmers to Conserve Water—And Sell It, CITY LAP (July 10, 2015) http://www.citylab.com/weather/2015/07/its-about-to-get-easier-for-california-farmers-to-conserve-waterand-sell-it/398144/.

Jennifer Najjar

Image: An aerial shot of Ririe Dam in Bonneeville, Idaho.  Flickr user Sam Beebe, 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


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).