San Luis Unit Food Producers v. United States

San Luis Unit Food Producers v. United States, No. 11-16122, 2013 WL 765206 (9th Cir. Mar. 1, 2013) (holding that the Reclamation Act, Central Valley Project Act, and San Luis Act, do not impose a duty on the Bureau of Reclamation to provide farmers with their preferred amount of water from the Central Valley Project).

In 1902, Congress passed the Reclamation Act, providing for the construction and operation of water collection, storage, and distribution projects in several of the Western States, to reclaim arid lands and support agriculture. The nation’s largest reclamation project, the Central Valley Project (“CVP”), managed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (“Bureau”), provides water to California’s Central Valley. In 1960, Congress passed the San Luis Act, authorizing the construction and operation of the San Luis Unit, an integral part of the CVP. In 1992, Congress passed the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (“CVIPA”), amending the purposes formerly enumerated for the CVP. The CVIPA established that river regulation, improvement of navigation, and flood control were the first priority of the CVP. The CVIPA listed irrigation, domestic uses, fish and wildlife protection, and restoration as a second priority. For several decades, the Bureau delivered enough water to adequately irrigate farmers’ lands in the area. However, when the Bureau began allowing significant amounts of water to flow free for the restoration of fish and wildlife, it significantly decreased the amount of water delivered to irrigation districts. As a result, the Bureau caused a decrease in the amount of irrigation water available to farmers and farming entities in the Central Valley.

A group of farmers (“Farmers”) sued the Bureau, claiming that various statutes, including the Reclamation Act, CVP Act, and San Luis Act, required the Bureau to deliver an amount of water to irrigation contractors consistent with historic use. The District Court for the Eastern District of California granted summary judgment in favor of the Bureau and the Farmers appealed. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Court of Appeals”) granted a de novo review.

The Farmers claimed that the Bureau violated its statutory duties (1) to “operate” the San Luis Unit in a manner that fully utilizes it for irrigation above other purposes, (2) to “exercise” its water rights to San Luis water, and (3) to “recoup Project costs.”

Asserting that the Bureau has a duty to operate the San Luis Unit in a manner fully utilizing the water for irrigation purposes, Farmers cited 43 U.S.C. § 521. Section 521 authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to contract with users to supply water for non-irrigation purposes from a project irrigation system as long as there is no detriment to irrigation purposes. The Farmers alleged that the Bureau’s re-allocation of water to support fish and wildlife was detrimental to the irrigation project and caused their injury. The Court of Appeals found that the Bureau did not contract to provide water for the protection of fish and wildlife, but was required to do so by CVPIA. Thus, the Court of Appeals determined that the Farmers did not identify a contract that caused the harm.

The Farmers also cited the CVP Act’s provision for the sale of electric energy, to allow full utilization of the CVP and accomplish the CVP’s purposes of river regulation, irrigation, and other uses. The Farmers again claimed that the Bureau must use CVP project water for irrigation purposes before other non-irrigation purposes. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Bureau did deliver water to irrigation contractors and that the CVP Act does not require the delivery of any particular amount of water.

The Farmers also relied on the San Luis Act, which states that the “principle purpose” of the San Luis Unit is to provide water for irrigation and specifies necessary water capture, storage, and distribution features of the unit. The Farmers alleged that the statutory language created a mandatory duty to deliver the Farmers’ preferred amount of irrigation water prior to supplying water for fish and wildlife protection efforts. The Court of Appeals determined that the statute did not create a duty to distribute a specific amount of water for irrigation, but merely described the necessary engineering features of the San Luis Unit.

Further, the Farmers claimed that the Reclamation Act directed the Secretary of the Interior to use Bureau funds for the operation and maintenance of reclamation projects. The Farmers proclaimed that the word “operation” meant “utilization of the works as fully practicable,” and that the Bureau must operate projects to the fullest practicable extent for irrigation before supplying water for non-irrigation purposes. The Court of Appeals ultimately determined that the Reclamation Act does not affirmatively require any particular managerial action on the part of the Bureau.

The Farmers also claimed the Bureau had a duty, under the Reclamation Act, to exercise its water rights within the San Luis Unit and to provide water to irrigation districts consistent with the amount historically used. The Reclamation Act does require the Bureau to comply with any state water law restrictions that are consistent with federal law. Under section 1702 of the California Water Code, the State Water Resources Control Board (“Board”) cannot grant a permit holder’s application for a change in the “purpose of use” unless the change will not injure any legal user. The Farmers claimed that the Bureau’s reduction in water collection, to support fish and wildlife protection efforts, changed the “purpose of use” and caused their injury and, thus, was a violation of section 1702. The Court of Appeals found that the plain meaning of section 1702 required the Board to make a “no injury” finding, but that section 1702 is in no way controlling over actions of the Bureau.

The Farmers’ next claimed the Reclamation Act provides that water rights acquired under the act belong to the land irrigated and are measured by beneficial use. The Farmers asserted they were entitled to the amount of water historically put to beneficial use. The Court of Appeals determined that the statement that “the beneficial use of water is the ‘measure’ of a water right,” was too vague to be interpreted as a directive to the Bureau to deliver the Farmer’s preferred amount of irrigation water.

The Farmers’ also cited the San Luis Act, providing that construction of the San Luis unit would not begin until the Secretary of the Interior was able to secure the necessary water rights to satisfy the purposes of the Unit. The Farmers alleged that non-irrigation use or non-use of water compromised the Bureau’s ability to satisfy the purposes of the Unit and, therefore, was impermissible under the San Luis Act. The Court of Appeals, however, found that the statute only imposed a condition on the construction of the San Luis Unit and did not require that the Bureau deliver a certain amount of irrigation water prior to providing for fish and wildlife protection efforts.

Lastly, the Farmers claimed that the Bureau was required to recover the costs associated with the construction, operation, and maintenance of the CVP through the sale of more irrigation water. The Court of appeals disagreed, determining that Congress intended those benefiting from reclamation projects to recover costs and the Secretary of the Interior to determine how to best recoup those costs. Therefore, the Court of Appeals determined that the Farmers could not compel the Bureau to sell more irrigation water in order to recoup costs.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s decision to grant summary judgment to the Bureau reasoning that none of the statutes raised by the Farmers imposed a duty on the Bureau to deliver the preferred amount of water to the Farmers’ irrigation contractors.