Early Reclamation Project Litigation

Ditch at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. This is the type of ditch that is leading salt water into the refuge. Photo by Debbie Crane, The Nature Conservancy. US Fish and Wildlife Service.

NRS | Federal Lands | Water Rights Reclamation | A Short History

In light of United States’ retained interest in the federal reclamation projects, the enormity of these projects, and their critical importance to water supplies throughout the West, it is hardly surprising that Department of Justice attorneys have handled much litigation involving these projects.  As early as 1913, the Attorney General reported that, consistent with “the importance of safeguarding the water rights reserved by the Government in the execution of the reclamation policy,” two attorneys had been engaged by the Public Lands Division to work in close cooperation with the Reclamation Service on these matters. 

Assistant Attorney General B.M. ParmenterThe early work handled by these and other attorneys included affirmative actions filed by the United States, which sought the adjudication of the water rights held by various reclamation projects.  However, the pace of this work was necessarily slow.  As the Assistant Attorney General for the Public Lands Division, B.M. Parmenter, lamented in 1926, “the initial litigation is both expensive and slow, but there seems to be no other way of determining the rights of the parties in interest.” 

Nonetheless, there was progress.  For instance, on January 13, 1930, a decree was entered in United States v. Angle in the district court for the Northern District of California – a case commenced in 1918 – adjudicating the relative rights of the United States and competing claimants to the use of water in and along Stony Creek in the northern Sacramento Valley, which provided water for Reclamation’s Orland Project.  Assistant Attorney General Seth W. Richardson commented that the decree “allocates such rights with unusual precision, taking into account confusion in the law of California . . . and now presents a situation which is satisfactory to all parties and has elicited the praise of leading California newspapers.” 

Other successfully concluded adjudications during these early years included: (1) modification in the 1930s of the so-called “Foster” and “Bryan” decrees – early state court decrees adjudicating portions of the Snake River in Idaho before the United States was a party – to recognize water rights for the Boise Project; (2) resolution of United States v. Hope Community Ditch – a suit to adjudicate the water rights of the United States for its Carlsbad project in New Mexico against more than 3,000 defendants – to recognize, largely by settlement, the United States’ claims; and (3) the issuance of a final decree in 1944 in the Orr Ditch litigation to recognize waters rights for the Newlands Project in the Truckee River in California. 

Finally, outside the context of these large scale adjudications, the United States enjoyed some early success in seeking injunctions against certain individual water claimants who were interfering with the exercise of Reclamation’s water rights in such cases as Ramshorn Ditch Co. v. United States, 269 Fed. 80 (8th Cir. 1920) and United States v. Ide, 277 Fed. 373 (8th Cir. 1921).  In those cases, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the United States’ right to re-use seepage water from reclamation projects for the additional irrigation of project lands, thereby allowing the maximization of the beneficial use of project waters.


Updated May 12, 2015

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