BRYANT V. YELLEN, 447 U. S. 352 (1980)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Bryant v. Yellen, 447 U.S. 352 (1980)

Bryant v. Yellen

No. 79-421

Argued March 25, 1980

Decided June 16, 1980*

447 U.S. 352


The principal question in this action is whether the general rule under federal reclamation laws limiting irrigation water deliveries from reclamation projects to 160 acres under single ownership applies to certain private lands in Imperial Valley, Cal., being irrigated with Colorado River water through the irrigation system constructed pursuant to the Boulder Canyon Project Act (Project Act). When the Project Act became effective in 1929, a large acreage was already being irrigated by water delivered by the Imperial Irrigation District (District) through a privately owned irrigation system. Under the Project Act and a 1932 implementing contract, the United States constructed and the District agreed to pay for a new irrigation system. The Project Act, which implemented and ratified the seven-State Colorado River Compact (Compact) allocating the river's waters, provides in § 6 that project works shall be used for "irrigation and domestic uses and satisfaction of present perfected rights in pursuance of" the Compact, and in § 14 provides that the reclamation law "shall govern the construction, operation, and management of the works herein authorized, except as otherwise herein provided." Section 46 of the Omnibus Adjustment Act of 1926 (1926 Act), a reclamation law, forbids delivery of reclamation project water to any irrigable land held in private ownership by one owner in excess of 160 acres. In contracting with the District for the building of the new irrigation system, the United States represented that the Project Act did not impose acreage limitations on lands that already had vested or present rights to Colorado River waters, and the United States officially adhered to that position until repudiating it in 1964. When the District refused to accept the Government's new position, the United States, in 1967, instituted the instant District Court proceedings for a declaratory judgment that the excess-acreage limitation of § 46 of the 1926 Act applies to all private lands in the District, whether or not they had been irrigated in 1929. Meanwhile, in original proceedings involving the determination of how the state-allocated waters under the

Page 447 U. S. 353

Compact and the Project Act should be divided, this Court recognized that a significant limitation on the power of the Secretary of the Interior (Secretary) under the Project Act was the requirement that he satisfy present perfected rights, and defined such rights under § 6 as those that had been acquired in accordance with state law and that had been perfected as of 1929 by the actual diversion of a specific quantity of water and its application to a defined area of land. Arizona v. California, 373 U. S. 373 U.S. 546; 376 U. S. 376 U.S. 340. And by a supplemental decree, 439 U. S. 439 U.S. 419, this Court adjudged the District to have a present perfected right to a specified quantity of diversions from the mainstream or the quantity of water necessary to irrigate a specified number of acres, whichever was less. The District Court ruled against the Government in the instant action and, when the Government chose not to appeal, denied a motion to intervene for purpose of appeal that had been filed by respondents, a group of Imperial Valley residents who desired to purchase the excess lands that might become available at prices below the market value for irrigated land if § 46 were held applicable. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the appealing intervenors had standing under Art. III and that the 160-acre limitation of § 46 of the 1926 Act applied to Imperial Valley.


1. Since it is unlikely that any of the owners of excess lands would sell land at below current market prices absent the applicability of § 46, whereas it is likely that such lands would become available at less than market prices if § 46 were applied, the Court of Appeals properly concluded that respondents had a sufficient stake in the outcome of the controversy to afford them standing to appeal the District Court's decision, even though they could not with certainty establish that they would be able to purchase excess lands if § 46 were held applicable. Pp. 447 U. S. 366-368.

2. Contrary to the Court of Appeals' conclusion, § 6 of the Project Act precludes application of the 160-acre limitation of § 46 of the 1926 Act to the lands under irrigation in Imperial Valley in 1929. Section 46 cannot be applied consistently with § 6 on the alleged ground that the perfected rights in Imperial Valley were owned by the District, not individual landowners, who were merely members of a class for whose benefit the water rights had been acquired and held in trust, and who had no right under the law to a particular proportion of the District's water. Such theory fails to take adequate account of § 6 and its implementation in this Court's opinion and decrees in Arizona v. California, which recognized that § 6 was an unavoidable limitation on the Secretary's power and that, in satisfying "present perfected rights," the Secretary

Page 447 U. S. 354

must take account of state law. Prior to 1929 and ever since, the District, in exercising its rights as trustee, delivered water to individual farmer beneficiaries without regard to the amount of land under single ownership, and, as a matter of state law, not only did the District's water right entitle it to deliver water to the farms in the District regardless of size, but also the right was equitably owned by the beneficiaries to whom the District was obligated to deliver water. Pp. 36374.

3. There is nothing in the Project Act's legislative history to cast doubt on the foregoing construction of the Act or to suggest that Congress intended § 14, by bringing the 1926 Act into play to interfere with the delivery of water to those lands already under irrigation in Imperial Valley and having present perfected rights that the Secretary was bound to recognize. Moreover, the contemporary construction of the Project Act by the parties to the 1932 contract was that the acreage limitation did not apply to lands in the District presently being irrigated, and this contemporaneous view of the Act, which supports the foregoing construction of the legislation, was not officially repudiated by the Secretary until 1964. Pp. 447 U. S. 374-378.

4. Further questions involving the applicability of acreage limitations to approximately 14,000 acres in addition to those that were under irrigation in 1929, and the determination whether a live dispute remains in light of the foregoing "perfected rights" holding, should be considered initially by the courts below. Pp. 378-379.

559 F.2d 509, and 595 F.2d 524 and 525, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Page 447 U. S. 355

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