Baker Ranches, Inc. v. Zinke

Decision Date01 September 2022
Docket Number3:18-cv-00261-RFB-CLB
PartiesBAKER RANCHES, INC., et al., Plaintiffs, v. RYAN ZINKE, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Nevada



Before the Court are Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (ECF No. 48) and Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 49).


Plaintiffs filed suit in federal court on June 5, 2018. ECF No 1. On February 26, 2019, Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint, which is the operative complaint. ECF No. 30. The Amended Complaint asserts five claims for relief: (1) quiet title under the Quiet Title Act, 28 U.S.C. §§ 1346f and 2409a; (2) declaratory judgment under 28 U.S.C. § 2201 to a recognized right-of-way or easement across United States National Park Service lands; (3) a writ of mandamus under 28 U.S.C. § 1361 compelling the defendants to provide a right-of-way or easement across National Park Service lands; (4) trespass; and (5) equitable or promissory estoppel. Id.

On January 4, 2019, Defendants moved to stay the case due to lapse in appropriations funding from the U.S. Department of Justice. ECF No. 23. The motion was granted on January 7, 2019 (ECF No. 24) and the stay was lifted on February 19, 2019. ECF No. 25.

The parties filed stipulated findings of fact on September 25, 2019, ECF No. 47, which were signed by this Court on October 22, 2019. ECF No. 50. The instant Motions for Summary Judgment were filed on October 21, 2019. ECF Nos. 48, 49. The parties responded to the cross motions on November 27, 2019, ECF Nos. 51, 52, and replied on December 20, 2019, ECF Nos. 53, 54.

Oral argument was held on November 25, 2020. ECF No. 56. The Court withheld its ruling until certain pending cases before the Nevada Supreme Court regarding water rights were resolved. As the Court has determined that any pending cases before the Nevada Supreme Court which impact the ruling have been resolved, this order follows.


This is a water rights dispute in which Plaintiffs bring claims for rights-of-way or easements within Great Basin National Park (the “Park”). Great Basin National Park is wholly located within the state of Nevada.

Unless otherwise indicated, the Court finds the following facts to be undisputed, based on the parties' stipulated findings of fact. See ECF Nos. 47, 50.

A. Great Basin National Park and the Underlying Lands

Prior to 1909, the lands underlying this dispute were part of the public domain. The public domain “consists of the lands belonging to the American public and held and administered through the national government.” 7 Thompson on Real Property, Thomas Editions § 55.02(a); see also In re Water of Hallett Creek Stream Sys., 749 P.2d 324, 335 (Cal. 1988) ([T]he term ‘public lands' (or ‘public domain') refers to lands owned by the federal government which have remained open to settlement, public sale or other disposition, and/or are now administered by the Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management.” (citing Fed. Power Comm'n v. Oregon, 349 U.S. 435, 443-444 (1955))). “As the owner of the public domain, the government possess[es] the power to dispose of land and water thereon together, or to dispose of them separately.” Cal. Oregon Power Co. v. Beaver Portland Cement Co., 295 U.S. 142, 163 (1935).

On February 10, 1909, the lands were withdrawn from the public domain and incorporated into the Nevada National Forest. They were managed by the United States Forest Service (“Forest Service”). In 1957, the Nevada National Forest was incorporated into the Humboldt National Forest. In 1986, Congress passed the Great Basin National Park Enabling Act, Pub. L. 99-565 (“Enabling Act), which converted the subject lands into the Great Basin National Park. The lands are currently managed by the National Park Service (“NPS”).

The Enabling Act provided that the withdrawal of the lands for the Park was “subject to valid existing rights.” 16 U.S.C. § 410mm-1(d). Creation of the Park was not to be “construed to establish a new express or implied reservation to the United States of any water or water-related right with respect to” the lands withdrawn. Id. at -1(h). Instead, the United States would be “entitled to only that express or implied reserved water right which may have been associated with the initial establishment and withdrawal of Humboldt National Forest and the Lehman Caves National Monument from the public domain.” Id. The Enabling Act further provided that the appropriation of water within the Park would be authorized only insofar as it occurred “in accordance with the substantive and procedural law of the State of Nevada.” Id.

Upon creation of the Park, the NPS requested that the Nevada State Engineer provide an assessment of all existing water rights within the limits of and in the general vicinity of the Park. Accordingly, on May 8, 1987, the Nevada Division of Water Planning issued the Great Basin National Park Water Right Assessment (the “Water Right Assessment” or “Assessment”). The Assessment was sent to the NPS. /// /// /// /// /// /// /// /// /// /// /// /// ///

B. Snake Creek and Baker Creek

The bodies of water at the center of this dispute are Snake Creek and Baker Creek, both of which originate within the Park. See Figure A.

Figure A (ECF No. 49-2).

Snake Creek flows generally west to east and out of the Park into Utah. Snake Creek's headwaters arise inside the Park, approximately 8 miles from the Park's boundary. Snake Creek leaves the park approximately 4.5 miles from the Nevada-Utah state line.

In 1962, prior to the creation of the Park and while the underlying lands were part of the Humboldt National Forest, the Forest Service issued a Special Use Permit to the Snake Creek Irrigation Company to construct a three-mile concrete pipeline (the “Snake Creek Pipeline” or “Pipeline”) to transport water through a portion of Snake Creek. The Pipeline was constructed to mitigate water loss in a “losing reach” of the Creek, where water was seeping into the ground as it flowed downstream. The Pipeline was constructed on unsurveyed federal land and located wholly within Nevada. On March 1, 1978, the Forest Service issued a second Special Use Permit to the Snake Creek Irrigation Company for construction and maintenance of the Pipeline. The second permit was amended on January 2, 1985 and expired on February 28, 1986. No further permits were issued by the Forest Service, and since creation of the Park, the NPS has not issued any special use permit for the Pipeline. Water has flowed through the Pipeline every year since the creation of the Park. Beginning in 2016, water began leaking from the Pipeline.

Like Snake Creek, Baker Creek also flows generally west to east and out of the Park, with its headwaters arising within the Park. Approximately six miles of Baker Creek are located within the Park. Unlike Snake Creek, which flows from Nevada into Utah, Baker Creek is wholly contained within the state of Nevada.

Over the years, members of the public have created obstructions and man-made dams within Baker Creek, inside the Park.

C. The Snake Creek Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs Baker Ranches, Inc.; Darwin C. Wheeler; and Owen L. and Patricia T. Gonder (collectively, “the Snake Creek Plaintiffs) own farming and ranching land in Millard County, Utah, just across the state line. Their land is irrigated by a diversion from Snake Creek in Utah, approximately 5-7 miles downstream from the Park boundary.

On May 17, 1910, the Fifth Judicial District Court in Millard County, Utah, entered a Decree in a quiet title action captioned George W. Gonder, et al. v. John Doe (“the Snake Creek Decree” or “Decree”). ECF No. 50, ¶ 9. The Snake Creek Decree held that the plaintiffs to that case and their successors are:

The exclusive owners of the right to the uses of all of the waters of said Snake Creek for irrigation purposes from March 1st to November 15th, in each and every year, and all adverse claims to the right to the use of any of the waters of said creek during the period of time above specified, are hereby adjudged to be null and void.

Id. at ¶ 10.

The Snake Creek Decree awarded water rights to the plaintiffs in that case and their successors, “to irrigate about 620 acres of land.” Id. Plaintiffs' water rights accrued no later than 1880.

In 1962, the successors-in-interest to the rights of the plaintiffs in the Snake Creek Decree, who are also the predecessors to the instant Snake Creek Plaintiffs, filed diligence claims[1] to secure their surface water rights based on the rights adjudicated in the Snake Creek Decree. The Utah State Engineer assigned water rights numbers 18-249, 18-250, 18-251, ad 18-257 in response to the diligence claims.

In 2016, the NPS denied the request of the Snake Creek Plaintiffs to perform maintenance and repairs to the Sake Creek Pipeline. The NPS stated that no further maintenance or repairs could be conducted until environmental review was accomplished pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) of 1970 and a new special use authorization was issued by the NPS. The Snake Creek Plaintiffs allege that by preventing them from being able to maintain and repair the Pipeline, which has been leaking since 2016, Defendants interfere with Plaintiffs' ability to exercise their water rights and to put the waters of Snake Creek to beneficial use.

D. The Baker Creek Plaintiffs

Plaintiffs Baker Ranches, Inc.; David John Eldridge and Ruth Eldridge as Co-Trustees of The David John Eldridge and Ruth Eldridge Family Living Trust, dated January 31, 2007; Zane Jordan; and Judee Schaley (collectively, “the Baker Creek Plaintiffs) own...

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