U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Bryant v. Yellen decision overturned rulings that would have restricted delivery of irrigation water to large landholders in California’s Imperial Valley. The decision confirmed the status quo, but it did not address the issue of aridity in California’s valleys.

Summary of Event

In 1991, California experienced its fifth consecutive dry year in a cycle of drought. Californians were then consuming thirty-five million acre-feet of water annually, and there was a deficiency of nine million acre-feet to be made up from reservoirs and other sources. (An acre-foot of water covers one acre to a depth of one foot.) Emergency restrictions were imposed on the state’s cities. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, which includes Los Angeles, cut its flow to consumers by more than 30 percent. Severe restrictions also affected the heartland of the state’s huge agribusinesses, the Central and Imperial valleys. The state’s water project stopped delivering water to farmers, and the Central Valley project reduced its deliveries, mostly to farmers, by nearly two-thirds. Californians reported in some polls that the wastage of water ranked second, after crime, as their major concern. Clearly, water could no longer be treated as if it were free. Supreme Court, U.S.;water rights Agriculture;water rights Water;access [kw]U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights (June 16, 1980) [kw]Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights, U.S. (June 16, 1980) [kw]Court Rules on Water Rights, U.S. Supreme (June 16, 1980) [kw]Water Rights, U.S. Supreme Court Rules on (June 16, 1980) [kw]Rights, U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water (June 16, 1980) Supreme Court, U.S.;water rights Agriculture;water rights Water;access [g]North America;June 16, 1980: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights[04230] [g]United States;June 16, 1980: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights[04230] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;June 16, 1980: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights[04230] [c]Agriculture;June 16, 1980: U.S. Supreme Court Rules on Water Rights[04230] White, Byron Powell, John Wesley Mead, Elwood Hall, William Hammond Haggin, James Ben Ali Yellen, Ben

California, like most of the western United States, is naturally arid. Authors of nineteenth century textbooks guessed correctly when they described much of the vast trans-Mississippi region (even before it was explored in detail) as the “Great American Desert.” Eastern and inherited European farming techniques and crops could not be transplanted there successfully.

As a result, from the 1870’s to the early 1900’s, congressional, California, and territorial legislation grappled experimentally with the unfolding difficulties posed by the aridity of the West. Irrigation seemed an immediate answer, with the achievements of Utah’s Mormon community setting the example. Aridity and irrigation both raised issues that John Wesley Powell, an explorer of the West and later director of the U.S. Geological Survey, sought to unravel in studies of the West and to explain in his prophecies about the limitations of irrigation. Powell’s cautionary studies elicited positive responses in California from William Hammond Hall, a California engineer and an advocate of state water control, and from Elwood Mead, who pursued land and water reform in the early 1900’s.

Powell’s studies on the nature of the West largely were ignored by California’s miners, by its land speculators, by its railroad barons, and by those who dreamed of making the state a commonwealth of small landholders, all of whom were eager to exploit whatever scarce water was available. In Washington, the outcome of trying to satisfy such interests was reflected by the federal government’s sale of 610 million acres of public land through the Desert Land Act of 1875, the Timber and Stone Act of 1878, the Carey Act of 1894, and the Newlands Act of 1902. In California, litigation sometimes resulted from water disputes. The most famous case involved Charles Lux Lux, Charles and James Ben Ali Haggin and lasted years. Legislation that emerged from further clashes of the state’s diverse peoples involved complex blending and compromise of riparian rights and appropriator rights known as the California Doctrine.

These elements mingled in the legal origins of Bryant v. Yellen, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 16, 1980. Retired dentist Ben Yellen and his allies hoped to displace the subsidized agribusinesses that controlled the land and produced the commodities in California’s Imperial Valley, and that also consumed the water brought there. Yellen hoped to replace industrial farms with smaller individual arms.

The issue before the Court involved application of a general rule of federal reclamation laws that limited delivery of irrigation waters from federal reclamation projects to single-ownership farms smaller than 160 acres. If the rule applied in the Imperial Valley, owners of more than 160 acres would be forced to sell their surplus lands at prices affordable to small farmers, and California’s richest agricultural region might be transformed into a bastion of family farms. The Imperial Valley otherwise would remain the preserve of large landholders and agribusinesses.

Until 1929, the privately owned Imperial Irrigation District supplied irrigation water to the valley through its own distribution system. That year, however, the federal Boulder Canyon Project Act Boulder Canyon Project Act (1928) (BCPA), which was signed into law in 1928, became effective. Under the BCPA and contracts subsequent to it, the federal government agreed to construct and pay for a new irrigation system drawing water from the Colorado River. In contracting with the Imperial Valley Irrigation District, the government agreed that the provisions of the Colorado River Compact, involving seven western states, left Imperial Valley landowners with their “present perfected rights,” unaffected by the 160-acre limitation. Officials of the Department of the Interior sustained that position until 1964, when it was abruptly repudiated. Repudiation at once brought Imperial Valley landowners under provisions of the 1926 Omnibus Adjustment Act, which prohibited delivery of reclamation project waters to one-owner private lands in excess of 160 acres. The repudiation prompted legal battles.

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bryant v. Yellen, Justice Byron White, at times a liberal but more often a strict constructionist legal scholar, rejected the contentions of lower court rulings that would have restricted water rights of large farms. A critical section of the BCPA, White noted, stipulated that project waters were to be applied to irrigation, domestic uses, “and satisfaction of present perfected rights.” Before 1929, under California law, the Imperial Valley District had supplied irrigation waters to individual farmers regardless of the size of their landholdings. Moreover, from 1929 until 1964, the Interior Department had made no effort to invoke the 160-acre limitation. Thus, in White’s view, the interior secretary’s reversal of long-accepted practice ignored “unavoidable limitations” imposed on his authority. Neither state nor federal laws, White concluded, sanctioned the 160-acre limitation on the perfected rights of Imperial Valley landholders.


The Bryant v. Yellen decision legally confirmed the status quo in the Imperial Valley, a garden spot that before irrigation appeared on many maps as the Colorado Desert. The agribusiness saved by the Court was an outgrowth of the BCPA, which after 1932 brought enough Colorado River water to the valley to irrigate 440,000 acres. The prosperity that ensued raised land prices. Most small farmers sold out to wealthy purchasers, creating two classes. One has been described as an elite of large, often absentee, landholders irrigating an average of 500 acres each, in several cases nearly 10,000 acres. This group has been successfully represented through its numerous associations and its lobbyists in Sacramento and in Washington. The other class, by 1970 one of the nation’s most impoverished, was composed chiefly of Chicano or Mexican laborers who maintained irrigation canals and harvested the owners’ crops. The status quo thus did nothing to nurture small landholdings or to foster social reform.

What the Supreme Court decreed and agribusiness applauded, nature treated with indifference. The West, California included, remained as arid as ever in affirmation of geographic, geological, and meteorological realities. Irrespective of spectacular public and private efforts, westerners by 1990 were able to irrigate only 69,000 square miles out of millions of dry acres. Even in Utah, where Mormons had pioneered irrigation and paved the way for federal reclamation laws, the limits of assaults on nature were manifest. After heroic labors, only 3 percent of the land had been irrigated. California, despite the construction of twelve hundred dams, the creation of two of the world’s largest irrigation projects, and expenditures that spiraled into the billions of dollars, had irrigated about 9,200 of its 156,537 square miles of land area. Some desert had been made to bloom, but not enough even to blemish the complexion of a vast arid region.

A California drought lasting from 1987 to 1992 drew public attention to the issues raised in Bryant v. Yellen and to the effects of the status quo in the Imperial Valley and elsewhere. Into the 1980’s, the state had continued evasive actions to preclude application of the 160-acre limitation embodied in federal reclamation laws. During the early 1990’s, Californians examined their prodigal uses of the West’s most essential commodity.

State officials and the public acknowledged that water could no longer be treated as if it were virtually free. Even so, indications were that it cost less for some than for others. About 85 percent of California’s water, for example, went to its farmers, mostly agribusinesses, whose products earned revenues of $18 billion a year but constituted only about 3 percent of the state’s economy. These farmers, in turn, paid only 10 percent of the cost of their water, about $10 per acre-foot. California’s cities paid up to $200 per acre-foot. Part of the bill fell on taxpayers. Agribusinesses using the Central Valley’s federal irrigation system were allowed to pay the Boulder Canyon Project’s cost, interest free, over a fifty-year period. With water furnished so cheaply to them, Imperial Valley farmers lacked incentives to conserve. They had prospered from growing notoriously thirsty crops such as alfalfa, cotton, and rice, each federally subsidized ($400 million annually for rice alone) and each a surplus crop. Few farmers drilled wells, and few tried the economical drip irrigation common in Israel and other dry parts of the world. Few bothered to prevent leakage on their lines and aqueducts.

Some experts argued that California possessed adequate water and that the problem was maldistribution. Most Californians live in the southern portions of the state and most water is in the north. Southern Californians demanded more dams, aqueducts, and canals, although in the 1990’s environmental groups posed opposition. Some pointed to the availability of the huge aquifer that underlies the state, estimated in 1991 to contain 850 million acre-feet of water, for which farmers could pay as little as $20 per acre-foot.

Tapping the aquifer at 1990 levels of usage reportedly would exhaust it within decades. Many believed in addition that continuing the subsidization of agribusinesses’ surplus crops and cattle, and thereby wasting water, was a recipe for economic and political disaster. Environmentalists refused to support expenditures for new irrigation projects. They regarded water as a finite resource that was being applied to inefficient agriculture to produce nonessential commodities. They opposed further damage to California’s landscape and wildlife that would be caused by dam building and by the neutering of the soil resulting from saline deposits from irrigation reservoirs and canals.

Nothing is likely to cure California’s or the West’s aridity or, in the short term, drastically alter lifestyles. The coincidence in 1991 of prolonged drought and the expiration of many old water contracts favored plans to conserve and to price water realistically. Schemes were proposed to reclaim waste waters and to desalinate seawater. Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District allocated $30 million to purchase water from farmers, while Sacramento rice growers were offered $250 an acre to save water by not growing rice. In addition, early in the 1990’s the trading of water rights within irrigation projects and between cities and farmers was being explored. In 1991, Los Angeles entered into the Inyo-Los Angeles Long Term Water Agreement to address both water needs and the effects of underground pumping on affected environments. This was followed in 1997 by a Memorandum of Understanding among Los Angeles, Inyo County, the Owens Valley Committee, and the Sierra Club to restore the integrity of the lower Owens River, which had been damaged by overpumping. Supreme Court, U.S.;water rights Agriculture;water rights Water;access

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beck, Warren A., and David A. Williams. California: A History of the Golden State. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Standard introduction to the general context of events. Easy to read. Many illustrations and maps. Water problems are dealt with throughout.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carle, David. Introduction to Water in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. An engaging history of water in California. Maps and many photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fellmeth, Robert C. Politics of Land. New York: Grossman, 1973. An informative, challenging, critical study of the power of California’s large landowners and agribusinesses. Detailed tables and abundant appendixes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hundley, Norris, Jr. The Great Thirst: Californians and Water, a History. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Fine, informative, well-written scholarship. Essential for a full grasp of the subject. Suggests that changes in Californians’ attitudes can help reverse water wastage; others argue nothing can be done to overcome natural aridity. Many photos and maps; valuable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pisani, Donald J. From the Family Farm to Agribusiness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A balanced historical view to 1931 of California water policies, of those who made them, and of failed dreams of a small farmers’ commonwealth. Excellent research and writing, enlivened by depiction of many fascinating individuals. Many maps and photos; superb bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. An excellent source for understanding the politics involved in water use in the western states.

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