424 U.S. 800 (1976), 74-940, Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 74-940
Citation:424 U.S. 800, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483
Party Name:Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States
Case Date:March 24, 1976
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 800

424 U.S. 800 (1976)

96 S.Ct. 1236, 47 L.Ed.2d 483

Colorado River Water Conservation District


United States

No. 74-940

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1976

Argued January 14, 1976




In order to manage the allocation of water and to resolve conflicting claims thereto, Colorado enacted legislation under which the State is divided into seven Water Divisions, in each of which a procedure is established for the settlement of water claims on a continuous basis. A State Engineer is charged with responsibility for administering the distribution of state waters. Seeking adjudication of reserved rights claimed on behalf of itself and certain Indian tribes, as well as rights based on state law, in waters in certain rivers in Division 7, the United States, which had previously asserted non-Indian reserved water rights in three other State Water Divisions, brought this suit against some l,000 water users in the District Court. The Government invoked District Court jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1345. Shortly thereafter, one of the federal suit defendants sought in the state court for Division 7 to make the Government a party to proceedings in that Division for the purpose of there adjudicating all the Government's claims, both state and federal, pursuant to the McCarran Amendment, 43 U.S.C. § 666. That law provides for consent to join the United States in any suit (1) for the adjudication of water rights, or (2) the administration of such rights, where it appears that the United States owns or is acquiring such rights by appropriation under state law or otherwise. The District Court, on abstention grounds, granted a motion to dismiss the Government's suit. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that jurisdiction for that suit existed under 28 U.S.C. § 1345, and that abstention was inappropriate.


l. The McCarran Amendment, as is clear from its language and legislative history, did not divest the District Court of jurisdiction over this litigation under § 1345. The effect of the Amendment is to give consent to state jurisdiction concurrent with federal jurisdiction over controversies involving federal water rights. Pp. 806-809.

Page 801

2. That Amendment includes consent to determine in state court reserved water rights held on behalf of Indians, see United States v. District Court for Eagle County, 401 U.S. 520, and United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, 401 U.S. 527, and the exercise of state jurisdiction does not imperil those rights or breach the Government's special obligation to protect the Indians. Pp. 809-813.

3. The abstention doctrine is confined to three categories of cases, none of which applies to the litigation at bar; hence the District Court's dismissal on the basis of abstention was inappropriate. Pp. 813-817.

4. Several factors, however, are present in this litigation that counsel against exercise of concurrent federal jurisdiction, clearly supporting dismissal of the Government's action and resolution of its water right claims in the state court proceedings. Pp. 817-820.

(a) Most significantly, such dismissal furthers the policy of the McCarran Amendment recognizing the desirability of unified adjudication of water rights and the availability of state systems like the one in Colorado for such adjudication and management of rights to use the State's waters. The Colorado legislation established a continuous proceeding for adjudicating water [96 S.Ct. 1239] rights that antedated the Government's suit and reached "all claims, perhaps month by month, but inclusively in the totality," United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, supra, at 529. Pp. 819-820.

(b) Other significant factors include (1) the apparent absence before dismissal of any District Court proceedings other than the filing of the complaint; (2) the extensive involvement of state water rights occasioned by this suit against 1,000 defendants; (3) the distance between the federal court and Division 7; and (4) the Government's existing participation in proceedings in three other Divisions. P. 820.

504 F.2d 115, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 821. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 826.

Page 802

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The McCarran Amendment, 66 Stat. 560, 43 U.S.C. § 666, provides that

consent is hereby given to join the United States as a defendant in any suit (1) for the adjudication of rights to the use of water of a river system or other source, or (2) for the administration of such

Page 803

rights, where it appears that the United States is the owner of or is in the process of acquiring water rights by appropriation under State law, by purchase, by exchange, or otherwise, and the United States is a necessary party to such suit.

The questions presented by this case concern the effect of the McCarran Amendment upon the jurisdiction of the federal district courts under 28 U.S.C. § 1345 over suits for determination of water rights brought by the United States as trustee for certain Indian tribes and as owner of various non-Indian Government claims.1

Page 804


It is probable that no problem of the Southwest section of the Nation is more critical than that of scarcity of water. As southwestern populations have grown, conflicting claims to this scarce resource have increased. To meet these claims, several Southwestern States have established elaborate procedures for allocation of water and adjudication of conflicting claims to that resource.2 In 1969, Colorado enacted its Water Rights Determination and Administration [96 S.Ct. 1240] Act3 in an effort to revamp its legal procedures for determining claims to water within the State.

Under the Colorado Act, the State is divided into seven Water Divisions, each Division encompassing one or more entire drainage basins for the larger rivers in Colorado.4 Adjudication of water claims within each Division occurs on a continuous basis.5 Each month, Water Referees in each Division rule on applications for water rights filed within the preceding five months or refer those applications to the Water Judge of their Division.6 Every six months, the Water Judge passes on referred applications and contested decisions by Referees.7 A State Engineer and engineers for each Division are responsible for the administration and distribution

Page 805

of the waters of the State according to the determinations in each Division.8

Colorado applies the doctrine of prior appropriation in establishing rights to the use of water.9 Under that doctrine, one acquires a right to water by diverting it from its natural source and applying it to some beneficial use. Continued beneficial use of the water is required in order to maintain the right. In periods of shortage, priority among confirmed rights is determined according to the date of initial diversion.10

The reserved rights of the United States extend to Indian reservations, Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908), and other federal lands, such as national parks and forests, Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963). The reserved rights claimed by the United States in this case affect waters within Colorado Water Division No. 7. On November 14, 1972, the Government instituted this suit in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado, invoking the court's jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1345. The District Court is located in Denver, some 300 miles from Division 7. The suit, against some 1,000 water users, sought declaration of the Government's rights to waters in certain rivers and their tributaries located in Division 7. In the suit, the Government asserted reserved rights on its own behalf and on behalf of certain Indian tribes, as well as rights based on state law. It sought appointment of a water master to administer any waters decreed to the United States.

Page 806

Prior to institution of this suit, the Government had pursued adjudication of non-Indian reserved rights and other water claims based on state law in Water Divisions 4, 5, and 6, and the Government continues to participate fully in those Divisions.

Shortly after the federal suit was commenced, one of the defendants in that suit filed an application in the state court for Division 7, seeking an order directing service of process on the United States in order to make it a party to proceedings in Division 7 for the purpose of adjudicating all of the Government's claims, both state and federal. On January 3, 1973, the United States was served pursuant to authority of the McCarran Amendment. Several defendants and intervenors in the federal proceeding then filed a motion in the District Court to dismiss on the ground that, under the Amendment, the court was without jurisdiction to determine federal water rights. Without deciding the jurisdictional question, the District Court, on June 21, 1973, [96 S.Ct. 1241] granted the motion in an unreported oral opinion stating that the doctrine of abstention required deference to the proceedings in Division 7. On appeal, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit reversed, United States v. Akin, 504 F.2d 115 (1974), holding that the suit of the United States was within district court jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1345, and that abstention was inappropriate. We granted certiorari to consider the important questions of whether the McCarran Amendment terminated jurisdiction of federal courts to adjudicate federal water rights and whether, if that jurisdiction was not terminated, the District Court's dismissal in this case was nevertheless appropriate. 421 U.S. 946 (1975). We reverse.



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