United States v. New Mexico

Citation438 U.S. 696,98 S.Ct. 3012,57 L.Ed.2d 1052
Decision Date03 July 1978
Docket NumberNo. 77-510,77-510
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. State of NEW MEXICO
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

The United States, in setting aside the Gila National Forest from other public lands, held to have reserved the use of water out of the Rio Mimbres only where necessary to preserve the timber in the forest or to secure favorable water flows, and hence not to have a reserved right for aesthetic, recreational, wildlife-preservation, and stockwatering purposes. That this was Congress' intent is revealed in the limited purposes for which the national forest system was created and in Congress' deference to state water law in the Organic Administration Act of 1897 and other legislation. While the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 was intended to broaden the purposes for which national forests had previously been administered, Congress did not intend thereby to reserve additional water in forests previously withdrawn under the 1897 Act. Pp. 698-718.

90 N.M. 410, 564 P.2d 615, affirmed.

James W. Moorman, Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

Richard A. Simms, Santa Fe, N.M., for respondent.

John U. Carlson, Denver, Colo., for the Twin Lakes Reservoir & Canal Co., et al., as amici curiae.

Mr. Justice REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Rio Mimbres rises in the southwestern highlands of New Mexico and flows generally southward, finally disappearing in a desert sink just north of the Mexican border. The river originates in the upper reaches of the Gila National Forest, but during its course it winds more than 50 miles past privately owned lands and provides substantial water for both irrigation and mining. In 1970, a stream adjudication was begun by the State of New Mexico to determine the exact rights of each user to water from the Rio Mimbres.1 In this adjudication the United States claimed reserved water rights for use in the Gila National Forest. The State District Court held that the United States, in setting aside the Gila National Forest from other public lands, reserved the use of such water "as may be necessary for the purposes for which [the land was] withdrawn," but that these purposes did not include recreation, aesthetics, wildlife preservation, or cattle grazing. The United States appealed unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court of New Mexico. Mimbres Valley Irrigation Co. v. Salopek, 90 N.M. 410, 564 P.2d 615 (1977). We granted certiorari to consider whether the Supreme Court of New Mexico had applied the correct principles of federal law in determining petitioner's reserved rights in the Mimbres. 434 U.S. 1008, 98 S.Ct. 716, 54 L.Ed.2d 750. We now affirm.


The question posed in this case—what quantity of water, if any, the United States reserved out of the Rio Mimbres when it set aside the Gila National Forest in 1899—is a question of implied intent and not power. In California v. United States, 438 U.S. 645, at 653-663, 98 S.Ct. 2985, at 2990-2995, 57 L.Ed.2d 1018, we had occasion to discuss the respective authority of Federal and State Governments over waters in the Western States.2 The Court has previously concluded that whatever powers the States acquired over their waters as a result of congressional Acts and admission into the Union, however, Congress did not intend thereby to relinquish its authority to reserve unappropriated water in the future for use on appurtenant lands withdrawn from the public domain for specific federal purposes. Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564, 577, 28 S.Ct. 207, 211, 52 L.Ed. 340 (1908); Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546, 597-598, 83 S.Ct. 1468, 1496-1497, 10 L.Ed.2d 542 (1963); Cappaert v. United States, 426 U.S. 128, 143-146, 96 S.Ct. 2062, 2071-2073, 48 L.Ed.2d 523 (1976).

Recognition of Congress' power to reserve water for land which is itself set apart from the public domain, however, does not answer the question of the amount of water which has been reserved or the purposes for which the water may be used. Substantial portions of the public domain have been withdrawn and reserved by the United States for use as Indian reservations, forest reserves, national parks, and national monuments. And water is frequently necessary to achieve the purposes for which these reservations are made. But Congress has seldom expressly reserved water for use on these withdrawn lands. If water were abundant, Congress' silence would pose no problem. In the arid parts of the West, however, claims to water for use on federal reservations inescapably vie with other public and private claims for the limited quantities to be found in the rivers and streams. This competition is compounded by the sheer quantity of reserved lands in the Western States, which lands form brightly colored swaths across the maps of these States.3

The Court has previously concluded that Congress, in giving the President the power to reserve portions of the federal domain for specific federal purposes, impliedly authorized him to reserve "appurtenant water than unappropriated to the extent needed to accomplish the purpose of the reservation." Cappaert, supra, at 138, 96 S.Ct., at 2069 (emphasis added). See Arizona v. California, supra, 373 U.S., at 595-601, 83 S.Ct., at 1495-1498; United States v. District Court for Eagle County, 401 U.S. 520, 522-523, 91 S.Ct. 998, 1000-1001, 28 L.Ed.2d 278 (1971); Colorado River Water Cons. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 805, 96 S.Ct. 1236, 1240, 47 L.Ed.2d 483 (1976). While many of the contours of what has come to be called the "implied-reservation-of-water doctrine" remain unspecified, the Court has repeatedly emphasized that Congress reserved "only that amount of water necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation, no more." Cappaert, supra, at 141, 96 S.Ct., at 2071. See Arizona v. California, supra, at 600-601, 83 S.Ct., at 1497-1498; District Court for Eagle County, supra, at 523, 91 S.Ct., at 1001. Each time this Court has applied the "implied-reservation-of-water doctrine," it has carefully examined both the asserted water right and the specific purposes for which the land was reserved, and concluded that without the water the purposes of the reservation would be entirely defeated.4 This careful examination is required both because the reservation is implied, rather than expressed, and because of the history of congressional intent in the field of federal-state jurisdiction with respect to allocation of water. Where Congress has expressly addressed the question of whether federal entities must abide by state water law, it has almost invariably deferred to the state law.5 See California v. United States, 438 U.S., at 653-670, 678-679, 98 S.Ct., at 2990-2998, 3002-3003. Where water is necessary to fulfill the very purposes for which a federal reservation was created, it is reasonable to conclude, even in the face of Congress' express deference to state water law in other areas, that the United States intended to reserve the necessary water. Where water is only valuable for a secondary use of the reservation, however, there arises the contrary inference that Congress intended, consistent with its other views, that the United States would acquire water in the same manner as any other public or private appropriator.

Congress indeed has appropriated funds for the acquisition under state law of water to be used on federal reservations. Thus, in the National Park Service Act of Aug. 7, 1946, 60 Stat. 885, as amended, 16 U.S.C. § 17j-2 (1976 ed.), Congress authorized appropriations for the "[i]nvestigation and establishment of water rights in accordance with local custom, laws, and decisions of courts, including the acquisition of water rights or of lands or interests in lands or rights-of-way for use and protection of water rights necessary or beneficial in the administration and public use of the national parks and monuments." (Emphasis added.) 6 The agencies respons ble for administering the federal reservations have also recognized Congress' intent to acquire under state law any water not essential to the specific purposes of the reservation.7

The State District Court referred the issues in this case to a Special Master, who found that the United States was diverting 6.9 acre-feet per annum of water for domestic-residential use, 6.5 acre-feet for road-water use, 3.23 acre-feet for domestic-recreational use, and .10 acre-foot for "wildlife" purposes.8 The Special Master also found that specified amounts of water were being used in the Gila National Forest for stock watering and that an "instream flow" of six cubic feet per second was being "used" for the purposes of fish preservation. The Special Master apparently believed that all of these uses fell within the reservation doctrine, and also concluded that the United States might have reserved rights for future water needs, ordering it to submit a report on future requirements within one year of his decision.

The District Court of Luna County disagreed with many of the Special Master's legal conclusions, but agreed with the Special Master that the Government should prepare within one year a report covering any future water requirements that might support a claim of reserved right in the waters of the Rio Mimbres. The District Court concluded that the United States had not established a reserved right to a minimum instream flow for any of the purposes for which the Gila National Forest was established, and that any water rights arising from cattle grazing by permittees on the forest should be adjudicated "to the permittee under the law of prior appropriation and not to the United States."

The United States appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of New Mexico. The United States contended that it was entitled to a minimum instream flow for "aesthetic, environmental, recreational and 'fish' purposes." 90 N.M., at 412, 564 P.2d, at 617. The Supreme Court of New Mexico concluded that, at least before the ultiple-Use...

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