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U.S. Supreme Court

California v. United States, 438 U.S. 645 (1978)

California v. United States

No. 77-285

Argued March 28, 1978

Decided July 3, 1978

438 U.S. 645


The United States Bureau of Reclamation applied to the California State Water Resources Control Board for a permit to appropriate water that would be impounded by the New Melones Dam, a unit of the California Central Valley Project. Congress specifically directed that the Dam be constructed and operated pursuant to the Reclamation Act of 1902, which established a program for federal construction and operation of reclamation projects to irrigate arid western land. Section 8 of that Act provides that

"nothing in this Act shall be construed as affecting or intended to affect or to in any way interfere with the laws of any State or Territory relating to the control, appropriation, use, or distribution of water used in irrigation, . . . and the Secretary of the Interior in carrying out the provisions of this Act, shall proceed in conformity with such laws. . . ."

After lengthy hearings, the Board, having found that unappropriated water was available for the project during certain times of the year, approved the Bureau's application, but attached 25 conditions to the permit (the most important of which prohibited full impoundment until the Bureau was able to show a specific plan for use of the water) which the Board concluded were necessary to meet California's statutory water appropriation requirements. The United States then brought this action against petitioners (the State, the Board, and its members) seeking a declaratory judgment that the United States may impound whatever unappropriated water is necessary for a federal reclamation project without complying with state law. The District Court held that, as a matter of comity, the United States must apply to the State for an appropriation permit, but that the State must issue the permit without conditions if there is sufficient unappropriated water. The Court of Appeals affirmed, but held that § 8, rather than comity, requires the United States to apply for a permit.


1. Under the clear language of § 8 and in light of its legislative history, a State may impose any condition on "control, appropriation, use or distribution of water" in a federal reclamation project that is not inconsistent with clear congressional directives respecting the project. To the extent that petitioners would be prevented by dicta that may

Page 438 U. S. 646

point to a contrary conclusion in Ivanhoe Irrigation District v. McCracken, 357 U. S. 275, City of Fresno v. California, 372 U. S. 627, and Arizona v. California, 373 U. S. 546, from imposing conditions in this case that are not inconsistent with congressional directives authorizing the project in question, those dicta are disavowed. Pp. 438 U. S. 653-679.

2. Whether the conditions imposed by the Board in this case are inconsistent with congressional directives as to the New Melones Dam and issues involving the consistency of the conditions remain to be resolved. P. 438 U. S. 679.

558 F.2d 1347, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and STEWART, BLACKMUN, POWELL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 438 U. S. 679.

Page 438 U. S. 647

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