Alaska Wilderness League v. Jewell, 788 F.3d 1212 (9th Cir. 2015) (affirming the district court’s ruling that: (i) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s approval of the challenged oil spill response plans was not arbitrary and capricious; (ii) the Endangered Species Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to consult with any environmental agencies before approving oil spill response plans; (iii) the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement was entitled to Chevron deference for its interpretation of the Oil Pollution Act; and (iv) the National Environmental Policy Act did not require the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to do an environmental impact statement before approving an oil spill response plan).

The Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (“OCSLA”) outlines the procedure for exploration and development of oil and gas resources offshore. This process has four stages. First, the Secretary of Interior creates a five-year leasing program under which operators may search and mine for oil and gas. Second, the Secretary must approve the leases under agreed upon terms and conditions. Third, the lessee must provide the Secretary with a plan of exploration and an Oil Spill Response Plan (“OSRP”) pursuant to the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). Fourth, after searching for oil and gas, and successfully finding either, the lessee has must submit a production and development plan to the Secretary for approval.

At the third stage, the Secretary of the Interior has delegated its power to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (“BSEE”) to approve OSRPs to prevent and respond to oil spills. The CWA requires these plans at four levels: national, regional, local, and individual. At the individual level, owners and operators must propose an OSRP for approval that outlines their response to a potential “worst case discharge” of oil or some other hazardous substance.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. (collectively “Shell”) acquired three leases for offshore exploration and production—two leases in the Beaufort in 2005 and 2007, and one in the Chukchi Seas in 2008. Shell complied with all regulations at the time for intended exploration, but due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, the Secretary of the Interior placed a temporary moratorium on all offshore drilling. The United States Department of Interior required owners and operators to provide new information in all OSRPs after the moratorium ended. To comply with the new criteria, Shell updated its OSRPs for its three leases. BSEE approved the updated Beaufort and Chukchi Seas OSRPs.

Alaska Wilderness League, a coalition of environmental groups, sued Secretary of Interior, Sally Jewell, in her official capacity because of the approval of Shell’s three OSRPs. Shell intervened as a co-defendant. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the United States District Court for the District of Alaska (“district court”) ruled in favor of Jewell and Shell. Alaska Wilderness League appealed to the United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit (“Court”). The Court reviewed the granting of summary judgment de novo and reviewed the record of the agency’s action under the arbitrary and capricious standard.

First, Alaska Wilderness League argued BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was arbitrary and capricious because Shell assumed it would be able to recover ninety to ninety-five percent of any oil spilled in either of the seas via mechanical means. A figure that Alaska Wilderness League claimed was unrealistic and that Shell failed to support with any evidence. The Court did not agree with Alaska Wilderness League’s interpretation, finding instead that Shell could store, not recover, ninety to ninety-five percent of any spilled oil. Further, the Court found that BSEE did not rely on this information in approving Shell’s OSRPs. Therefore, the Court found that the record did not support Alaska Wilderness League’s argument. Accordingly, the Court concluded BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was not arbitrary and capricious.

The Court next addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s argument that BSEE failed to consult with other agencies in order to comply with the Endangered Species Act (“ESA”). The Court disagreed. The Court reasoned that ESA only triggers consultation when the agency’s involvement is discretionary, and, in this case, BSEE’s approval of the OSRPs was non-discretionary. Therefore, the Court held that ESA did not require BSEE to do a consultation.

The Court then went through a two-step Chevron deference analysis to assess BSEE’s interpretation of the applicable sections of the CWA. At step one of its Chevron analysis, whether the statute in question is ambiguous, the Court found that the CWA was ambiguous in both its structure and its language. The Court found the CWA has ambiguous language because of three pertinent sections: (i) 33 U.S.C. § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) requires an operator to “prepare and submit . . . a plan for responding, to the maximum extent practicable, to a worst case discharge;” (ii) § 1321(j)(5)(D) lists six requirements that the OSRP “shall” meet; and (iii) § 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) states that if the OSRP meets all six requirements, then BSEE “shall” approve it.

Specifically, the Court found the text ambiguous as to whether BSEE has the discretion to consider any additional environmental factors in making its determination of an OSRP. The Court found that the “maximum extent practicable” language in § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) suggested the agency had discretion in its approval of an OSRP. However, the Court also found §§ 1321(j)(5)(D) and 1321(j)(5)(E)(iii) to be a laundry list of requirements that an OSRP must meet. If an OSRP meets those requirements, then BSEE must approve the plan; removing any agency discretion. Additionally, the Court found the statute’s structure ambiguous because of the discretionary language in one section, and the rigid language in the one following it. The Court found this difference created “a statute whose halves do not correspond to each other – giving rise to ambiguity that calls for Chevron deference.” Under this finding of ambiguity, the Court found it must defer to BSEE’s interpretation of the statute as long as its interpretation is reasonable.

The Court then underwent the second step of the Chevron analysis to determine whether BSEE’s interpretation was reasonable. Courts must defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute as long as that interpretation is reasonable. The Court found that BSEE’s interpretation of the statute was reasonable. BSEE argued that § 1321(j)(5)(A)(i) mandated it to promulgate regulations that help operators follow the OSRP requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(D). Then, separately, § 1321(j)(5)(D)-(E) lists exactly what the OSRP shall include and the agency shall approve. The Court agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that the statute mandated the agency to publish regulations to outline how operators can comply with the list. The Court also agreed with BSEE’s interpretation that it could not consider anything more than the list when granting an OSRP. The Court, having found BSEE’s interpretation to be reasonable, deferred to the agency’s interpretation.

The Court also found that BSEE’s interpretation was consistent with longstanding agency policy. The Court explained how BSEE has a history of regulating in conformity with the goals of the Oil Pollution Act that amended the CWA. The legislative history of the Oil Pollution Act suggests that Congress meant to create specific requirements of OSRPs, not guidelines open to interpretation by the courts or agencies.

Lastly, the Court addressed Alaska Wilderness League’s four additional arguments. First, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the similarity in language between the requirements listed in § 1321(j)(5)(E) and the section of the statute governing federal response plans to spills subjected the approval of OSRPs to ESA consultation. However, the Court disagreed with this interpretation. Under the sections of the statute governing federal response plans, an ESA recommendation may prompt agency action, but the plan “shall include, but not be limited to” a number of factors. This federal response plan requirement, unlike that in § 1321(j)(5)(E), does not limit the factors to those listed.

Second, Alaska Wilderness League argued that the regulations contain no language to support approval of the OSRPs just because they address the clean up plan to some degree. The Court quickly dismissed this argument. The Court found that the statute states that the purpose of the OSRP is to prepare a response plan for an accident at sea resulting in release of oil, and that Congress ordered these plans be in compliance with “the Oil Pollution Act’s amendments to the Clean Water Act.” The Court deferred to BSEE’s interpretation that the OSRPs were sufficient and justly approved, despite any explicit language governing BSEE’s decision.

Third, Alaska Wilderness League argued that BSEE had discretion over whether OSRPs met the criteria in § 1321(j)(5)(E), thus triggering ESA consultation. The Court found this argument to be at odds with previous Supreme Court’s rulings. The Supreme Court previously held that “ESA cannot defeat an agency’s nondiscretionary statutory directive.” The Court held that BSEE’s act of granting OSRPs was nondiscretionary, and so it did not trigger any interagency review under ESA.

Lastly, Alaska Wilderness League claimed that BSEE violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) by failing to do an environmental impact statement (“EIS”) before approving the OSRPs. Under NEPA, all federal agencies must conduct an EIS before conducting any “major Federal action” that significantly affects the environment. However, the Court noted that there is an exception to this requirement when the environmental impact is the result of a decision over which the agency had no discretion. The Court ruled that because BSEE had no discretion over the approval of the OSRPs under the statute, it also had no discretion over the environmental impacts, making BSEE exempt from performing an EIS.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s ruling.

D.W. Nelson, Senior Circuit Judge, dissenting.

Senior Circuit Judge Nelson agreed with the majority’s ruling that BSEE acted appropriately when it approved the OSRPs in question, but dissented to all other aspects of the majority opinion. Specifically, the dissent agreed with Alaska Wilderness League’s contention that BSEE’s action was discretionary, triggering an ESA consultation.

The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s finding that BSEE was exempt from performing a NEPA analysis. The dissent did not agree with the majority’s interpretation of the NEPA exception. The dissent argued that as a regulator of environmental consequences “the [BSEE] did in fact possess the kind of discretion that necessitated NEPA review.”

William James Tilton

Image: Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Gulf of Mexico. Flickr user Green Fire Productions, Creative Commons.


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

Introduction

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

Background on Federal Reserved Rights to Water

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

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

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Litigation

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

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

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

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

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

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Settlement

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

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

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

Limitations on Use of Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

This post explores the intersection of two topics that have historically been neglected in interstate water allocation, and in particular in interstate compacts: groundwater and tribal reserved rights to water.  Against the backdrop of the Agua Caliente case currently before the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, which raises the potential for broader recognition of tribal reserved rights to groundwater, this post focuses on interstate dimensions of recognizing such rights.  Interstate waters may be allocated in three ways: 1) an equitable apportionment decree from the U.S. Supreme Court; 2) legislation by the U.S. Congress that allocates water between states; or 3) interstate compacts.  This piece focuses on how tribal reserved rights have been dealt with under interstate compacts.

Federal Reserved Rights and Groundwater

The recognition of federally reserved Indian rights to surface water is well entrenched in water law jurisprudence, dating back to U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Winters in 1908.  As the Agua Caliente case before the Ninth Circuit highlights, tribal reserved rights to groundwater remain less established.  We first set out some background for tribal reserved rights claims to groundwater.  Then, we explore the interaction between federally reserved Indian and state rights to groundwater in the context of interstate allocations.

Even within individual states, the recognition of tribal groundwater claims may be problematic when addressing the allocation and governance of water rights.  While rights to surface water are well established, tribal rights to groundwater were typically not considered when initial allocations of water rights occurred.  Independent of tribal reserved rights, states have experienced difficulty in formulating regulatory frameworks to conjunctively manage both surface water and groundwater, particularly where different state water rights systems apply for surface water and groundwater.  The introduction of tribal reserved rights to groundwater, which may predate current claims, could have cascading effects on long-established uses of water.  The displacement of these claims and the unsettling of long-settled expectations of continued use pose an issue that we feel should be prophylactically addressed.

Interstate Allocations and Federal Reserved Rights

Inconveniently, aquifers do not always follow state lines.  In the case of transboundary aquifers, which extend across two or more states, it is unclear how federally reserved rights interact with the different states’ allocations from the aquifer.  At least two possible approaches exist: either 1) the federal reserved right takes priority, with the remaining groundwater allocated between the states; or 2) the federal allocation is taken from the allocation of the state in which the federal reserve is located.  The Supreme Court followed the latter approach in Arizona v. California, which allocated Colorado River water between these states.  In that case, the Special Master upheld the federal government’s reserved rights claim to water on behalf of various tribes, and the Special Master to the U.S. Supreme Court determined in his report that “all consumption of mainstream water within a state is to be charged to that state, regardless of who the user may be” (Rifkind, Special Master’s Report, at p. 247).  Thus, water used on Indian reservations would be chargeable to the state within which the use was made.  The Supreme Court accepted this analysis, but it did not explain why.

Nevertheless, while the limited jurisprudence on this issue would take reserved rights from the allocation of the state in which the reservation is located, Arizona v. California may not establish a general rule for the allocation of Indian water rights.  Importantly, it seems that all parties (including the United States) agreed to this approach, so that the merits of an alternative approach may not have been fully ventilated.  Further, any broadly applicable rule may be limited by the Special Master’s reliance on the specific legal framework in that case, including the 1928 Boulder Canyon Project Act and pre-existing federal contracts for the delivery of water in the region.

Of the 24 interstate compacts dealing with the allocation of interstate water resources listed on the National Center for Interstate Compacts database, only nine mention Indian rights, and none use the phrase “federally reserved rights.”  The compacts that do refer to Indian rights generally do not deal with this issue beyond a boilerplate acknowledgement that nothing in the compact “shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes,” such as the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and the Klamath River Compact of 1957.

Unfortunately, should a tribal claim to the use of surface water or groundwater be made, this boilerplate language is not helpful in divining who is responsible for satisfying such rights.  One exception to the silence on this issue is the Snake River Compact, which explicitly states that reserved Indian rights are to be deducted from the state allotments in which the reservation is located.  Similarly, the California-Nevada Compact of 1969, which is not technically in force as it never gained U.S. Congressional approval, specifically notes that “there is allocated to Nevada for use on the Walker River Indian Reservation a maximum of 13,000 acre-feet per year.”

Charging tribal reserved rights to state allocations, however, is not the only possible approach.  In Montana v. Wyoming, the Special Master noted Montana’s position that because the Northern Cheyenne Tribe’s water rights predated the Yellowstone River Compact of 1950—they dated to as early as 1881—the Tribe’s rights should take priority over both states’ post-1950 rights.  In 1991, Montana and the Tribe had agreed to the Northern Cheyenne-Montana Compact, which assigned the Tribe a 20,000 acre-foot storage right with a priority date “equal to the senior-most right for stored water in the Tongue River Reservoir,” which is April 21, 1937 (Thompson, second interim report, at 158).  Wyoming, however, expressed its concern that Montana should not be able to “give away” water rights to the Tribe and then ask Wyoming to curtail its own rights to make up any shortfall for Montana users.  Because neither the Tribe nor the United States were parties to the case, the Special Master did not consider the case to be an appropriate venue to decide the nature of the Tribe’s water rights.  Accordingly, this question remains to be decided another day.

Meanwhile, interstate compacts similarly neglect groundwater; only six interstate compacts contain any mention of groundwater, and these references are fairly cursory.  In the Bear River Compact and Klamath River Compact, for instance, groundwater is mentioned to clarify that it falls outside the scope of the surface water apportionment in the Compacts.  By contrast, the Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin Compact provides that “[w]ater resources” or “waters” means “all surface waters and ground waters contained or otherwise originating within the ACT Basin,” signaling an intention that the Compact applies to both sources.  The Upper Niobrara River Compact of 1962 treads a middle ground, as it is confined to surface water apportionment, but expresses an intention to later apportion groundwater as soon as “adequate data on ground water of the basin are available.”  Studies have subsequently been undertaken in the Upper Niobrara Basin, but some fifty years later, the Compact has not been updated to encompass groundwater.  In the absence of express wording in the relevant compact, the Supreme Court has found that surface water allocations can be extended to groundwater; this appears to represent the default position.  For instance, in Kansas v. Nebraska, the Supreme Court found that, although the Republican River Compact did not address groundwater, it could be framed to prevent groundwater use within a state that affected interstate surface water flows.

Who Should be Responsible for Satisfying Federal Rights?

Accordingly, how should future courts, and states while negotiating compacts, approach the allocation of liability to satisfy federal reserved rights water claims? As adverted to above, the dominant theory and practice is that, unless provided otherwise, reserved rights shall be charged to state allocations.  The possible basis for this approach is the argument that a compact made between states and ratified by Congress estops Congress from later asserting a federal interest to modify the specific allocation identified in the compact.  This is because compacts are authorized by the Compact Clause in the U.S. Constitution and then approved by Congress, so they may enjoy some measure of quasi-constitutional status.  However, Professor A. Dan Tarlock suggests that this legal position may be outdated in light of cases suggesting that an interstate compact cannot limit Congressional exercise of its power to regulate interstate commerce (see, e.g., Pennsylvania v. Wheeling).  A related explanation is a pragmatic one founded in the very purpose of interstate compacts.  That is, states enter into compacts, surrendering some of their sovereignty, to secure certainty of supply.  Allowing later federal claims to modify this allocation would risk upsetting and reopening established interstate compacts.  Professor Tarlock suggests that the best approach is to treat Indian claims as “analogous to interstate waters allocated to another state by interstate compact” (Tarlock, at p. 653).  This would involve federal claims being satisfied out of the state’s allocation.  Within that framework, he suggests that federal reserved rights would usually take priority over state uses (see, e.g., Hinderlider v. La Plata & Cherry Creek Ditch Co.).

Conversely, other states have taken the position that satisfaction of Indian rights is a basin-wide responsibility.  There are compelling arguments in support of this approach; it may be unfair to charge one state with responsibility for satisfying the entirety of a federal reserved claim to water in a shared water basin because in some cases, the quantum of the potential federal right may be greater than the state’s entire allocation (as may be the case in Arizona), or federal claims may arise in relation to already over-allocated basins.  This would upset the affected state’s interests under the compact and drastically change the nature of the bargain struck.

On a principled level, prior federal reserved rights generally preempt all subsequent state claims.  Therefore it is misleading for a state to talk about “giving away” water rights, as Wyoming argued in Montana v. Wyoming, because the federal reserved right was never within the state’s power to give.  Moreover, the concern expressed by the Tribe in that case was that characterizing their reserved rights as falling within the state’s allocation could result in relegation of that right.  Although in that case, this concern rests largely on the terms of the Yellowstone River Compact itself, broader vindication of tribal rights may weigh in favor of a basin-wide response.  This issue arises when we consider the dynamics of tribal water settlements, which are usually negotiated between the federal government, tribes and the relevant state.  A state that is required to satisfy any tribal settlement with its own water allocation alone may be more likely to take a hard-nosed approach to negotiations than one that has greater resources available from the basin.  Moreover, because the McCarran Amendment of 1952 waives federal sovereign immunity for adjudication tribal reserved water rights, these proceedings often take place in state courts, which have traditionally been seen as less sympathetic to Indian interests than federal courts.  Therefore, any federally reserved allocation arguably should not factor into the quantity of water that is available for division between states.

This distinction may be easier to draw on paper than in practice, particularly when states allocate water before federal claims are officially recognized, because it assumes that the federal reserved right is both fixed and quantifiable.  This is not necessarily the case, particularly when states are negotiating compacts where inchoate federal claims exist that have not yet been advanced.  That is, in order to reserve water for potential federal claims, it would be necessary to first identify the scope of such claims.  Moreover, where less information exists to guide management of groundwater, it may not be feasible to preemptively identify how much water needs to be set aside to insure against all possible future claims.  This is by no means a straightforward undertaking, and it would most likely require engagement with relevant federal and tribal interests.  The risk of this approach is that quantifying federally reserved rights is in itself a vexed and lengthy process, and so interstate co-management of water basins could be delayed.

While these issues complicate the matter, we suggest they are not insurmountable.  The existence of federally recognized tribes and reservations overlying groundwater is easily ascertainable, so it may be that, where possible, states should proactively reserve water based on the “practicably irrigable acreage” standard.  Further, an approach that prioritizes federal reserved rights may well encourage earlier, more meaningful engagement with tribal stakeholders when states negotiate water allocations.  Ultimately, it is important that tribal water rights are not undermined through the willful failure of states to address these issues.

Conclusion

These issues will only become more contentious and problematic as demand for water continues to grow, and as a changing climate leads to increasingly drought and scarcity in some parts of the American Southwest.  Greater demands will be placed on already stressed aquifers as groundwater is increasingly looked to as a supplemental source.  States should look not only to collaboration with both tribal and private parties, but to other states in attempting to proactively address these inevitable problems.

Sarah Hoffman, L.L.M. Candidate, Stanford Law School, expected 2016

Miles Muller, J.D. Candidate, Stanford Law School, expected 2018

Image: Tahquitz Rock, part of the San Jacinto Mountains in Idyllwild, California.  Flickr user Don Graham, Creative Commons.

SOURCES

Cases / Compacts

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water Dist., No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49998 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015).

Alabama-Coosa-Tallapoosa River Basin Compact, Pub. L. No. 105-105, 111 Stat. 2233 (1997).

Bear River Compact, Pub. L. No. 85-348, 72 Stat. 38 (1958).

California-Nevada Compact for Jurisdiction on Interstate Waters, Cal. Water Code § 5976 (West 2016).

Hinderlider v. La Plata & Cherry Creek Ditch Co., 304 U.S. 92 (1938).

Kansas v. Nebraska, 574 U.S. ___ (2015).

Klamath River Compact, 71 Stat. 497 (1957).

Pennsylvania v. Wheeling, 59 U.S. 421 (1856).

Snake River Compact, 64 Stat. 29 (1950).

Upper Niobrara River Compact of 1962, Pub. L. No. 91-52, 83 Stat. 86 (1969).

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

McCarran Amendment of 1952, 43 U.S.C. § 666 (1988).

Secondary Sources

A. Dan Tarlock, One River, Three Sovereigns: Indian and Interstate Water Rights, 22 LAND & WATER L. REV. 631 (1987).

Barton Thompson, SECOND INTERIM REPORT OF THE SPECIAL MASTER, MONTANA V. WYOMING, Oct. Term 2014 (Dec. 29, 2014).

DOUGLAS S. KENNEY, NATURAL RES. LAW CTR., UNIV. OF COLO. SCH. OF LAW, WATER ALLOCATION COMPACTS IN THE WEST: AN OVERVIEW (2002).

John Leshy, Interstate Groundwater Resources: the Federal Role, 14 HASTINGS W.-NW. J. ENVTL. L. & POL’Y 1475 (2008).

National Center for Interstate Compacts, State Search, http://apps.csg.org/ncic/.

Simon Rifkind, REPORT OF THE SPECIAL MASTER, ARIZONA V. CALIFORNIA, Oct. Term 1960 (Dec. 5, 1960).

Robert T. Anderson, Indian Water Rights, Practical Reasoning, and Negotiated Settlements, 98 CAL. L. REV. 1133 (2010).