Intersection Between Federal And State Law

Rice irrigation in Missouri. Courtesy of USDA.

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

At the mid-point of the century, water rights attorneys with the Lands Division continued their affirmative efforts to seek the adjudication of the water rights held for certain Reclamation projects throughout the West.  In addition, an emerging area of litigation concerned the extent to which the Reclamation Act allows state law to place conditions upon the exercise of these water rights. 

At the center of this dispute was Section 8 of the Reclamation Act, which provides that the Act is not to be construed as interfering with state laws “relating to the control, appropriation, use, or distribution of water used in irrigation” and that “the Secretary of the Interior, in carrying out provisions of the Act, shall proceed in conformance with such laws . . . .” 

The Supreme Court was soon called upon to weigh in on this issue in such cases as Ivanhoe Irrigation Dist. v. McCracken, 357 U.S. 275 (1958) and City of Fresno v. California, 372 U.S. 627 (1963).  In those cases, the Supreme Court interpreted state law requiring delivery of water to large tracts and preferring domestic over irrigation uses to be preempted by the acreage limitations and irrigation preference under the Reclamation Act. 

Subsequently, the Court in California v. United States, 438 U.S. 645 (1978), ruled that, notwithstanding Ivanhoe and Fresno, a state may impose conditions on the control, appropriation, use, or distribution of water through a federal reclamation project that are “not inconsistent” with clear congressional directives.  The interplay between the requirements of – and potential conflicts between – federal and state law remains the subject of recurring litigation that continues into the present.


Updated May 13, 2015

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