Bryant v. Yellen

LOCATION: E.L. Aaron & Co., Inc.

DOCKET NO.: 79-421
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1975-1981)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 447 US 352 (1980)
ARGUED: Mar 25, 1980
DECIDED: Jun 16, 1980

Arthur Brunwasser - on behalf of the Respondents
Charles W. Bender - on behalf of the Petitioners
Northcutt Ely - on behalf of the Petitioners
Wade H. McCree, Jr. - on behalf of the Respondents

Facts of the case


Media for Bryant v. Yellen

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 25, 1980 in Bryant v. Yellen

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear argument first this morning in three consolidated cases, Bryant v. Yellen, California v. Yellen, and Imperial Irrigation District v. Yellen.

Mr. Ely, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Northcutt Ely:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

I believe that a map has been distributed.

Warren E. Burger:

It is being distributed now, Mr. Ely.

Northcutt Ely:

The primary question before the Court, Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court, is whether the Boulder Canyon Project Act, this Court's opinion in Arizona v. California, and its two decrees in that case require the Secretary of the Interior to deliver water in satisfaction of present perfected rights in excess of 160 acres per owner.

If time permits, I would refer also to two other issues in the case, namely the finality that we feel attaches to the conduct of the Department of the Interior and the other judicial approaches to this matter over a period of some thirty-odd years and finally briefly the standing of the respondents here.

We have briefed all three issues, I may say.

The area involved in the Imperial Valley, the Court may recall, is below sea-level, it was irrigated starting in 1901 by a canal that took off in the United States and followed an ancient river channel through Mexico, the Alama --it is shown in yellow on this map -- and back into the United States.

This was done without federal assistance.

It continued, the area continued to be irrigated in that fashion for some forty years.

The area under irrigation grew gradually from about 100,000 to the precise figure of 424,145 acres as of the effective date of the Boulder Canyon Project which was June 25, 1929.

This Court's decree of last January 1979 so determined.

It adjudicated that the present perfected rights, that is rights to water for a specific area of land, 424,145 acres, had been established under state law by valid appropriations with the priority of 1901 and that the quantity diverted and used in the effective date of the project, 1929, was 2,600,000 acre-feet.

Byron R. White:

Where was that determination?

Northcutt Ely:

That is in this Court's decree of January 1979, in Arizona v. California.

Byron R. White:

That is a supplemental decree that got around to specifying the perfected rights?

Northcutt Ely:

That is correct, Mr. Justice White.

It determined the present perfected rights of some 17 defined tracks of land in Arizona and 59 in California.

Of the area in the Imperial Irrigation District, it is stipulated that 233,000 acres are in holdings in excess of 160 acres.

There are 800 such holdings in the district.

This came about because prior to the time when the Boulder County Project Act was enacted, the economy of the valley had established that pattern.

Lands had originally been acquired under the Desert Land Act in tracts of 320 acres, not 160 acres, and over the years have been consolidated as the laws of California and indeed the United States permitted, with the result that as of 1929 and now the economy of the valley is reflected in holdings larger than 160 acres.

Byron R. White:

Mr. Ely, to whom did the perfected right run?

That is relevant to this case.

Northcutt Ely:


The 1979 decree decreed these rights to Imperial Irrigation District.

I should add that under the laws of California, the district is a trustee for the landowners who are the equitable owners of the water rights.

The district cannot sell them, it cannot mortgage them under California law.

It is a trustee.