Compromise or Concession?

I. Introduction

The United States Forest Service (“Forest Service”) manages 193 million acres of land with a mandate to do so for the betterment of the public. As an agency within the Department of Agriculture, this usually manifests itself in the “multiple uses” management system that seeks to provide for outdoor enthusiasts, conservationists, and agriculturalists alike. But how does that directive mesh with ski resorts operating on public land that use scarce water resources to create snow? For the past half-decade, the Forest Service has been attempting to pass a regulation that would appropriate privately held water rights originating on National Forests back to federal government control. This article takes a brief look at the history of discord between ski resorts looking to develop on the publicly owned national forests, and the Forest Service. It also examines the lead up to, and consequences of, the most recent regulations imparting more federal control on water resources management in arid western states.

II. 100 years of Conflict

Ownership disputes of water rights developed and used on federal land dates back over one hundred years. The conflict playing out today, that of private landowners pitted against the Forest Service, spawned from restrictions on homesteading around the turn of the 20th century. When Gifford Pinchot, the first United States Forest Service leader, visited Colorado in 1909, westward-expanding citizens accused the Forest Service and the federal government of over-reaching their intended purpose, claiming they were “living in a state of fear.” The Forest Service had just enacted regulations removing tracts of national forest from homesteading availability. Over the last one hundred years, private landowners have butted heads with the federal government wanting more local control in lieu of federal oversight.

The relationship between Colorado water rights holders and the Forest Service is just as contentious today as it was when Pinchot visited the area over a century ago. The contentious relationship most recently manifested itself in a fight for control of water rights and permits that ski resorts use to manufacture snow. In 2004, the Forest Service attempted to create joint tenancy of water rights. In effect labeling themselves as “landlord” and ski resorts as “tenants.” Although applied to a few adjudications nationwide, many states do not recognize the concept of joint tenancy for water rights.

In 2011, the Forest Service issued a new regulation requiring ski area operators who develop new water rights within their ski permit areas to grant their newly acquired water rights to the United States Government. In 2011, the Forest Service applied this rule when the Powderhorn Ski Resort, near Grand Junction, changed hands. The Forest Service required the new owners to transfer their existing water rights to the government, conditioning the approval of the ski area purchase on the new owner’s acceptance of these terms. The ski resort industry fiercely criticized this policy, and many water rights holders were concerned about the supremacy of state water law over a forest service directive.

Traditionally states have had the sole authority to govern water rights creation and ownership within their borders, many water rights users saw this new policy as the federal government’s attempt to impose federal law in an area that state law wholly controlled. Later in 2011, the National Ski Areas Association (“NSAA”) filed suit in National Ski Areas Association, Inc. v. United States Forest Service. In reviewing the Forest Service regulation, the court held it was a new “legislative rule” subject to the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act. Because the Forest Service did not publish its intent to create a new regulation, and sought no input from the public and those affected by the order, the Forest Service invalidly issued the rule.

Following the 2012 decision, the Forest Service engaged in a lengthy notice and comment period to fulfill its procedural obligations under the Administrative Procedure Act. The results of which yielded a regulation issued December 2015, and went into effect January 2016. The new policy is significantly different from the 2011 attempt, involving concessions and input from all interested parties, not just governmental.

III. Compromise and Concession

The latest iteration of the Forest Service’s attempt to secure title to water rights originating from federal land might best be described by the axiom, “(a) sign that a successful accord has been reached is that no one walks away from the table completely happy.”

Resorts gave up autonomous control of their water rights, which they previously enjoyed, and in return maintain the ability to buy and sell their water rights at will. However, in the wake of the Forest Service’s new policy, when ski resorts are sold and the buyer does not want to purchase the accompanying water rights then the federal government has the right of first refusal. Although a far cry from the Forest Service’s 2011 goal, the new rule provides a way to potentially gain water rights ownership, an important milestone, but the rule was not achieved without sacrifice.

This compromise can seem like a large departure when viewed in the context of the original 2011 Forest Service policy. The Forest Service intended to secure a concrete, real property interest in the water resorts use, the right of first refusal, created by the 2015 rule, is by no means a resounding success of obtaining that goal. Finally, the new regulation requires resorts to document whether their current water permits adequately address their needs or if they are using excess water. Aiming to hedge against water over use and potential resort water grabs, this requirement places an added administrative burden on resorts, but allows the Forest Service to better predict water supply shortages during droughts.

What might be the most telling fact about this process is who abstained from involvement. Refusing to throw punches at or for the Forest Service, local and regional environmental groups declined to extensively participate. Although not actively participating in the process, Ken Neubecker, Associate Director at American Rivers, was quick to caution against the direction the Forest Service is moving in this rule making, “[t]hey have a responsibility to the American public to manage these lands properly, and in the West, that means having some sort of administrative authority over what happens with water.”

IV. Conclusion

This struggle for authority over water rights is far from over. Environmentalists and recreationists alike are interested in what impact the new regulation has on water availability and the ability to enjoy the slopes. The immediate effect is maintenance of the status quo. Resorts still hold their water rights and the Forest Service allows the resorts to buy and sell the rights at their own discretion.

This means security for the snow conditions that draw tourists in from all over the country. It also means less than the ideal amount of Forest Service oversight and control. As long as resorts and other private companies continue to hold rights to water that originate on Forest Service land, in years of drought, water that could potentially assist agriculture, municipalities, or preserve local ecosystems will be in the hands of ski resorts for recreation.

Jackson Zoellner

Image: A backcountry skier atop Silverton Mountain in Silverton, Colorado. Flickr user Zach Dischner of Zach Dischner PhotographyCreative Commons.

Sources:

David Wise, Ending the Budget Wars, THE HILL OP ED (Nov. 5, 2013), http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/economy-budget/189185-ending-the-budget-wars.

Ski Area Water Clause, 80 F.R. 81508, (Dec. 30, 2015) (to be codified at FSH 2709.11, Chapter 50).

Heidi Rucklidge, Ski Area Water Rights: Federal Water “Grab” Resolved?, WELBORN SULLIVAN MECK and TOOLEY PUBLIC LANDS BLOG (Feb. 22, 2016), http://www.wsmtlaw.com/blog/ski-area-water-rights-federal-water-grab-resolved.html.

Allen Best, Who Gave Up What In The Feud About Ski Areas and Water Rights?, MOUNTAIN TOWN NEWS (Feb. 6, 2016), http://mountaintownnews.net/2016/02/06/ski-area-water-rights-forest-lands/.

Nat’l Ski Areas Ass’n, Inc. v. U.S. Forest Serv., 910 F. Supp. 2d 1269 (D. Colo. 2012).

Jason Blevins, Forest Service Backs Off Controversial Water Clause in Ski-Area Permits, DENVER POST (June 18, 2014), http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_29326058/forest-service-buries-plan-transfer-ski-area-water.

Paige Blankenbuehler, Forest Service Leaves Control of Water Rights to Ski Resorts, HIGH COUNTRY NEWS (Jan. 29, 2016), https://www.hcn.org/articles/new-forest-service-water-policy-leaves-control-of-water-rights-to-resorts.


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.

 


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.

Agua Caliente raises pressing issues at the intersection of Federal Indian law and water law that have yet to be conclusively resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. Among these issues are whether federal reserved water rights apply to groundwater and the scope and circumstances under which aboriginal water rights, with a priority date of time immemorial, may be claimed. This piece explores in depth the Agua Caliente’s claim to aboriginal rights to groundwater, and how the district court ruled on this claim in its March 20, 2015 ruling on summary judgment.

Background on Federal Indian Water Rights

Although the law of Indian water rights remains in flux, water rights potentially available to federally recognized tribes fall into two categories: 1) federal reserved, or Winters, water rights and 2) aboriginal, or Winans, water rights. Both types are at issue in Agua Caliente, and while this post primarily discusses the Agua Caliente Band’s aboriginal water rights claim, an overview of both types of rights provides useful background.

First, tribes may be entitled to federal reserved water rights. The U.S. Supreme Court first recognized reserved water rights in Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908), which concerned the Fort Belknap Indian reservation in Montana. The Milk River flows through the Fort Belknap reservation, and, at the time of the case, a number of non-Indian Montanans had obtained state appropriative rights to the river’s water. The federal government sought to restrain these state-sanctioned users from diverting water upstream of the reservation, and the question arose whether the Indian reservation possessed water rights through which it could restrain other appropriators. In response to this question, the Court held the reservation did possess water rights because, in setting aside the Fort Belknap Indian reservation, the federal government reserved water sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the reservation. In other words, if by treaty the United States reserved land to provide a tribal agricultural homeland, the resulting Indian reservation and its occupants would possess federal reserved water rights to the quantity of water necessary to fulfill that agricultural purpose. Later courts, such as Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963), clarified that these rights apply to waters appurtenant to the reservation and have a priority date commensurate to the date of the treaty or other federal action reserving the lands.

In addition to reserved water rights, tribes have invoked aboriginal water rights carrying a priority date of time immemorial. The key Supreme Court case supporting such rights is United States v. Winans, 198 U.S. 371 (1905). While Winans was not a water rights case, it contains a principle of Indian law applicable to water rights, namely that treaties and other federal actions are not a grant of rights to the Indians, but rather a grant of rights from them. Thus, according to Winans, tribes retain rights that they did not explicitly cede in a treaty or other agreement. In the case of Winans, these retained rights included hunting and fishing.

The central case recognizing the Winans principle with respect to water rights is United States v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394 (9th Cir. 1983). There, the Ninth Circuit held the Klamath Tribe of Oregon possessed aboriginal title to certain lands, hunting, and fishing rights, and “by the same reasoning, an aboriginal right to the water used by the Tribe as it flowed through its homeland.” Id. at 1413. While the Klamath Tribe ceded title to most of its ancestral lands by treaty, the Tribe retained exclusive use and occupancy rights. Relying on Winans, the Adair court found that there was “no indication in the treaty, express or implied, that the Tribe intended to cede any of its interest in those lands it reserved for itself.” Id. at 1414. Thus, the court held, the Tribe possessed a continuing water right on the Klamath Reservation to support its hunting and fishing lifestyle. This right, the court explained, carried a priority date of “time immemorial.” Id.

Reserved and Aboriginal Rights in Agua Caliente

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Agua Caliente” or “Tribe”) is a federally recognized tribe with a reservation in southern California’s Coachella Valley. The Tribe has used and occupied the land constituting and surrounding their current reservation for generations. The Tribe’s ancestral homeland in the Coachella Valley forms part of the Sonoran desert, where water is scarce, particularly in California’s current drought. In 2013, the Agua Caliente sued the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency seeking, among other requests, a declaration that the Tribe possesses both federal reserved and aboriginal rights to the Valley’s groundwater. This lawsuit began in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California.

The parties to the suit agreed to break the action into three phases. Phase I, which was decided in March 2015, addressed two primary legal questions: (1) whether the Agua Caliente held federal reserved rights to groundwater under the Winters doctrine, and (2) whether the Tribe held aboriginal rights to groundwater. The court held the Tribe’s federal reserved water right included a right to groundwater. The court found the reservation’s purpose was to provide a tribal homeland, and thus the Tribe possessed a federal reserved water right sufficient to fulfill that purpose. The court reasoned that this right extended to the groundwater beneath the Tribe’s land as an appurtenant source of water. See Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, Case No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (E.D. Cal., Mar. 20, 2015) at 7-10 (hereinafter “Agua Caliente”). Because the extension of the Winters doctrine to groundwater has not been settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, this constitutes a major victory for the Tribe.

The Eastern District, however, denied the Tribe’s aboriginal rights claim. This section recounts the parties’ arguments in this case.

i. The Parties’ Arguments

The aboriginal rights arguments in Agua Caliente centered on federal statutes enacted in the wake of California joining the United States. In 1848, Mexico ceded land that would become the State of California to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Shortly thereafter, in 1850, California was admitted to the Union and became a state. And just one year later, the U.S. Congress passed the Act of 1851, which sought to protect the property rights of former Mexican citizens and to settle land claims in California. The Act required those claiming property rights to file their claims within two years.

Coachella argued that the 1851 Act required all claims to land to be submitted, and that the Agua Caliente’s failure to submit a claim within the two-year period set forth in the Act meant that any claims to the land were extinguished in 1853. Likewise, Coachella argued that the record lacked sufficient factual support for Agua Caliente’s aboriginal groundwater rights claim. In particular, Coachella emphasized the lack of evidence that Agua Caliente reservations had any wells in use, but rather that they only used surface water.

Agua Caliente countered that the 1851 Act did not extinguish their aboriginal rights. Agua Caliente did not dispute that they failed to file a claim in the two-year window of the Act. Instead, they argued that the Act, which on its terms pertained to “each and every person claiming lands in California by virtue of any right or title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government,” Plaintiff’s Brief at 20 (citing An Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California, 9 Stat. 631 (March 3, 1851)), did not apply to them because their claim to land did not stem from the Spanish or Mexican government. Rather, they claimed aboriginal rights based on use and occupation since time immemorial, and did not rely upon title derived from the Spanish or Mexican government. To buttress this argument, Agua Caliente also pointed to an 1853 Act passed by the U.S. Congress to transfer California lands in which the United States retained a proprietary interest to the United States. Because this 1853 Act included an exception for “land in the occupation or possession of any Indian tribe,” the Tribe argued that this provision explicitly recognized as valid the kind of aboriginal title that they asserted. In making this argument, Agua Caliente also attempted to distinguish a series of U.S. Supreme Court cases finding aboriginal rights to be extinguished by the Act of 1851. It did so on the ground that those U.S. Supreme Court cases addressed “Indian land rights that fell within the purview of the 1851 Act,” but that Agua Caliente’s land rights did not fall within the purview of the 1851 Act.

Likewise, because an 1850 law passed by the U.S. Congress created a treaty commission for the purpose of clearing aboriginal title claims of non-missionized Indians, Agua Caliente argued that they did not fall within the scope of the Act of 1851. The Act of 1851, their argument went, did not apply to Indians outside the zone of missionization because the 1850 Act covered their claims. Agua Caliente also noted that they had negotiated a treaty with the United States in 1852 that set aside a reservation, but that they were not notified of the U.S. Senate’s failure to ratify the treaty for some time.

Finally, Agua Caliente argued that even if their aboriginal land rights had been extinguished by the 1851 Act, they subsequently reestablished title by continuing their exclusive use and occupancy of the land and water on their ancestral lands.

ii. The Court’s Ruling

The court’s ruling on summary judgment granted the Agua Caliente federal reserved rights to groundwater, but denied the claim for aboriginal groundwater rights. It rejected both of Agua Caliente’s aboriginal rights arguments, finding that the Tribe’s failure to file a claim in accordance with the Act of 1851 extinguished any aboriginal water rights. Moreover, the court held that even if the 1851 Act did not extinguish these aboriginal rights, the establishment of a reservation in 1876 “effectively re-extinguished that right.” Agua Caliente at 13.

Although the court did not explicitly address Coachella’s argument that no factual support demonstrated groundwater use in the relevant time period, the court did note that aboriginal rights to groundwater are not founded upon use of groundwater itself, but rather derive from a right to occupancy. See Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, Case No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (E.D. Cal., Mar. 20, 2015) at 13 fn. 12 (“[N]o such freestanding aboriginal rights exists, all derive from a right to occupancy.”). Accordingly, proof of actual groundwater use was not necessary.

The court’s decision to deny aboriginal rights to Agua Caliente relies fairly heavily on U.S. Supreme Court precedent regarding the Act of 1851. Although the argument that an aboriginal right does not stem from Spanish or Mexican authority and that property rights not stemming from Spanish or Mexican authority are not covered by this Act appears persuasive on its face, past U.S. Supreme Court decisions have interpreted the Act of 1851 as requiring tribes claiming aboriginal land rights to have filed a claim pursuant to the Act to preserve their occupancy rights. The main case finding otherwise, Cramer v. United States, 261 U.S. 219 (1923), upon which Agua Caliente relied heavily, contains some language favorable for the Tribe. See, e.g., id. at 231 (“The Indians here concerned . . . and their claims were in no way derived from the Spanish or Mexican governments.”). Nevertheless, while the U.S. Supreme Court has not affirmatively stated that all aboriginal land claims in California fall within the ambit of the Act of 1851, the Ninth Circuit in U.S. ex rel Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638 (9th Cir. 1986), effectively interpreted the line of U.S. Supreme cases as doing just that. The Chunie court distinguished Cramer on the ground that the tribe in that case did not occupy the land in question at the time of the Act of 1851. Interestingly, the Eastern District did not address Agua Caliente’s argument about the 1850 treaty commission, so the court’s exact perception of that argument remains unclear. Nevertheless, the Eastern District did not find it persuasive enough to rule in the Tribe’s favor on the aboriginal water rights claim.

The Eastern District’s assertion that the creation of a reservation for the Tribe in 1876 reservation extinguished aboriginal rights, however, appears inconsistent with prior case law on aboriginal water rights. As put forward in Winans, reservations are not a reservation of rights to tribes, but rather a reservation of rights from them—a reservation of those not granted. Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit in Adair, 723 F. 2d at 1414, noted, concerning the aboriginal water rights it found to exist for the Klamath Tribe, “[t]he rights were not created by the 1864 Treaty, rather, the treaty confirmed the continued existence of these rights.” The Eastern District here, citing Hagen v. Utah, 510 U.S. 399, 412 (1994) instead explained that reservation means “the United States withdraws land which it then ‘set[s] apart for public uses.’” The Eastern District used this statement to support the assertion that “an aboriginal right of occupancy is fundamentally incompatible with federal ownership.”  Agua Caliente at 13. This assertion, of unclear origin or legal underpinning, contradicts Adair, which recognized a continued aboriginal right of occupancy on a federal reservation. Adair, 723 F. 2d at 1414.

Conclusion

First, in our estimation, the Eastern District should have refrained from foraying into the counterfactual that the Tribe might have reclaimed its aboriginal title between the Act of 1851 and the 1876 establishment of its reservation. Alternatively, just as the Ninth Circuit did in Adair, the court could have conducted a robust interpretation of the executive order that established the reservation in 1876 to determine whether or not it reserved any remaining aboriginal rights. We feel that it is a legal error to conclude that a reservation automatically extinguishes any aboriginal rights that may exist without even examining the text of the order establishing the reservation. However, because the Tribe has elected not to appeal the aboriginal rights portion of this ruling, the order and its flawed reasoning will remain on the books.

Case law surrounding the presence of aboriginal water rights remains murky. Although Agua Caliente ultimately prevailed on their reserved water rights claim in this case, recognition of aboriginal rights can be crucial to tribes, primarily when 1) a federal reserved rights claim is not available; or 2) the priority date guaranteed by a reserved right is not early enough to preserve a tribe’s access to water. Given the lack of clarity in aboriginal water rights, erroneous decisions in this arena are not surprising. Appellate courts should work to make the law here more clear when the opportunity to do so arises to provide better guidance to lower courts attempting to make sense of the confusing state of the doctrine.

Although this piece has focused on the legal underpinnings of aboriginal rights, it is worth acknowledging that, from the perspective of basic fairness, these legal underpinnings are themselves seriously flawed. During this time period, eighteen tribes in California negotiated treaties with the United States that were never ratified. No one bothered to notify the tribes of this fact. Combined with the Act of 1851, these actions left many California tribes homeless. On top of this, these tribes had to endure state-sanctioned attempts to get rid of the Indian population. There are some tools within the law, such as aboriginal water rights, that can be used to advance tribal interests, but that does not change this country’s history of using the law itself to subjugate the people who have lived here the longest, a history that is still present in certain strains of modern legal doctrine.

Richard Griffin and Claudia Antonacci, JD Candidates, Stanford Law School, Class of 2017

Image: Warner’s hotsprings and the village of Aqua Caliente, California ca. 1900.  Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften, Creative Commons.

SOURCES:

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

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

United States v. Winans 198 U.S. 371 (1905).

United States v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394 (9th Cir. 1983).

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

An Act to Ascertain and Settle the Private Land Claims in the State of California, 9 Stat. 631 (March 3, 1851).

U.S. ex rel Chunie v. Ringrose, 788 F.2d 638 (9th Cir. 1986).

Agua Caliente Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment on Phase I Issues.

Coachella Valley Water District Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment or in the Alternative, for Partial Summary Judgment.

United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, Who We Are, http://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/RegionalOffices/Pacific/WeAre/.


Editor’s Note: This piece is a 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 United States Forest Service (“Forest Service”) manages 193 million acres of land in the United States, which comprise of 8.4 percent of the total land area, and most of which lies west of the Mississippi River.  In May 2014, the Forest Service announced a proposal to amend its internal polices.  The amendment would establish a comprehensive framework for groundwater management on National Forest System (“NFS”) lands.  Following publication in the Federal Registry, the agency received over 250 comments from interested parties, including state and city governments, tribal groups, and conservation organizations.  Some comment submissions supported the Forest Service’s policy changes.  Others expressed concern over its lack of authority to institute groundwater regulations, and its potential overreach into state rights.  More specifically, commenters argued that the proposed directive had the potential to usurp state groundwater management by what they perceived was a huge expansion of federal authority over reserved water rights.  Ultimately, the Forest Service withdrew its proposed directive, but it intends to revise and resubmit similar directives following additional internal and external consultation efforts.

The Groundwater Directive

The Forest Service does not have a comprehensive policy for managing groundwater resources on NFS lands.  Its current policies provide little internal direction and only address “agency inventory and monitoring activities for groundwater.”  The proposed groundwater directive, entitled “Groundwater Resource Management,” would have amended the Forest Service’s internal directives for Watershed and Air Management.

Substantively, the proposed directive would help the agency manage access to and utilization of groundwater resources under NFS lands.  Broadly speaking, it would establish policies and procedures to help the agency evaluate activities that potentially affect the quality and quantity of groundwater.  The agency identified four objectives and eight broad changes that would result from the new directive.  Among them, and relevant to this discussion, is the establishment of a framework for evaluating existing and proposed Forest Service uses and special use authorizations.  For any such uses, the agency would begin to require “appropriate water conservation measures” to avoid, minimize, or mitigate adverse effects to groundwater.  The agency would not authorize development projects or use of groundwater if such uses failed to “adequately protect resources.”  Further, the Federal Service would assume that all groundwater and surface water is “hydraulically connected, unless demonstrated otherwise.”

The Forest Service offered numerous reasons for its policy change; however, two underlying rationales stand out.  First, the agency concluded that groundwater has inextricable links to all other sources of water in a watershed, so it is therefore “appropriate to include groundwater” in its management of NFS lands in order to maintain the integrity of all water resources.  Second, the Forest Service asserted that there is a “need” to create a consistent policy that addresses both surface water and groundwater resources, and the directive responds to external rules and recommendations calling for such policies.

Legal Concerns

The agency published the proposed groundwater directive for public comment and tribal consultation.  It received hundreds of responses from interested parties.  Some, including conservation groups and those representing tribal interests, favored, or were otherwise neutral to, the proposed policy changes.  However, a majority of those submitting comments opposed the Forest Service’s groundwater directive for a variety reasons.  Predominantly, the agency itself recognized that “[s]tates and a number of other organizations raised concerns that the proposed directive would exceed the Agency’s authorities and infringe on State authorities to allocate water.”

To the first point the agency identified, many commenters remarked that the Forest Service lacked independent authority to regulate groundwater, even that located under NFS lands.  For instance, the Western Governors’ Association (“WGA”), which represents the governors of nineteen Western states, argued that states have exclusive authority over ground water in the United States.  Congress granted such authority to the agency in the Desert Land Act of 1877, and the Supreme Court confirmed it in California Oregon Power Co. v. Beaver Portland Cement Co.  Although the federal government retained some power by reserving rights to surface water on public lands, the WGA and others contended that the Forest Service did not have such a reserved right to groundwater—not in the 1897 Organic Administration Act and not in case law. The Forest Service, on the other hand, argued that the proposed directive did not grant the agency any new authorities.  Instead, it simply clarified the agency’s already existing authority that mandates its protection of NFS lands, which inherently includes the regulation of groundwater.  Thus, this argument makes it clear that the Forest Service believed that federal reserved water rights apply to groundwater, and that the proposed directive was arguably an explicit expansion of those federal rights.

Commenters also highlighted the second concern the agency identified, that the directive infringed on state authority over groundwater management.  Many argued that the proposed directive overreached its stated goal and appeared to create federal rights that inherently conflicted with conferred state rights to groundwater.  The Forest Service later argued that “[t]he proposed directives did not, and any future actions will not, infringe on State authority.” However, ambiguity in the policy nonetheless created tension.  Without clarity, for instance, the proposed directive as written could have allowed the Forest Service to place quantity-based restrictions on waters connected to NFS lands, even if a state has previously authorized a diversion and depletion.  Additionally, commenters argued, the Forest Service should not presume a hydrological connection between surface water and groundwater.  It should instead leave this decision to the laws or agreements of individual states.

Conclusion

In June 2015, the Forest Service withdrew its proposed groundwater directive.  Although the Forest Service withdrew its directive, it announced an intention to continue engaging in dialog, both internally and publically, to develop revised proposed directives on the issue.  Ultimately, if the Forest Service manages to establish policies involving access to or utilization of groundwater resources on NFS lands, even for the purpose of enhancing water quality, it may constitute a large expansion of federal reserved water rights.

Kobi Webb, J.D., University of Denver School of Law, 2016

Image: Greer Spring in Missouri’s Mark Twain National Forest.  Flickr user U.S. Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons.

SOURCES

By the Numbers, U.S. Forest Service, http://www.fs.fed.us/about-agency/newsroom/by-the-numbers (last updated Nov. 2013).

California Oregon Power Co. v. Beaver Portland Cement Co., 295 U.S. 142 (1935).

Comments, Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management, Forest Service Manual 2560, https://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=FS-2014-0001.

James Cefalo, Return of the Federal Non-Reserved Water Right, 10 U. Denv. L. Rev. 45, 49 (2006).

Letter from Anthony L. Francois, Attorney, Pacific Legal Foundation, to Forest Service (Oct. 3, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0129.

Letter from Barker Fariss, Ph.D, Tribal Historic Preservation Office, to the Forest Service (June 25, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0130.

Letter from City of Greely, to Forest Service (Sep. 29, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0230.

Letter from Eric Fry, Director of Regulatory Affairs, Peabody Energy, to Forest Service (Aug. 4, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0045.

Letter from Matthew H. Mead, Chairman, and Steve Bullock, Vice Chair, Western Governors’ Association, to the Forest Service at 2 (Mar. 17, 2016), http://www.westgov.org/images/Forest_Service_Directives_FINAL_002.pdf.

Letter from Rex Tilousi, Chairman, Havasupai Tribe, to the Forest Service (Oct. 2, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0193.

Letter from WGA, at 4; Letter from Clinton Ditch & Reservoir Company, the Forest Service at 4 (Aug. 21, 2014), https://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=FS-2014-0001-0227.

Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management, Forest Service Manual 2560, 79 Fed. Reg. 25816 (proposed May 4, 2014) (referring to FSM 2880, entitled “Geologic Resources, Hazards, and Services”).

Proposed Directive on Groundwater Resource Management, Forest Service Manual 2560, 80 Fed. Reg. 35299 (June 19, 2015).

U.S. Forest Service, “Key and Common Questions and Answers Proposed Groundwater Directive FSM 2560,” Question 5 (June 30, 2014).