Colorado v. New Mexico

LOCATION: Minnesota State Legislature

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)

CITATION: 459 US 176 (1982)
ARGUED: Oct 04, 1982
DECIDED: Dec 13, 1982

Richard A. Simms - on behalf of the Defendants
Robert F. Welborn - on behalf of the Plaintiff

Facts of the case

This case brief is a precedent in the field of public international law. The main dispute that was considered in its framework is the dispute over the fair and rational use of water from the Vermejo River by two states, as the river flows through the territory of both of them. An international river that crosses or divides the territories of several states creates a relationship between the interests of coastal states, which determines their mutual rights and obligations with respect to this river. In this case, the court had to recognize the validity of one of the principles.

These are the principles of the previous appropriation and the principles of equitable use. The regime of transboundary and border rivers is determined by mutual agreement of coastal states. If in the past the regime of international rivers concerned only navigation, then today the growing importance is attached to the regulation of the use of rivers for economic purposes: to generate electricity, to meet the needs of industry and agriculture. Here the general principle operates: any methods of use should not damage the legitimate interests of other coastal states. Moreover, the coastal states jointly and individually must take the measures necessary to preserve the river.

Prior to the court's consideration of the case, the river's water resources were used by four enterprises registered in New Mexico. In 1975, a company operating in the state of Colorado received legislative permission to use a certain amount of water resources. The plaintiff found this decision illegal because the river had previously been in a virtually monopolized position. In turn, the court ruled that in this case study the right to equitable use should be applied.


Media for Colorado v. New Mexico

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 04, 1982 in Colorado v. New Mexico

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Number 80 Original, State of Colorado against the State of New Mexico and others.

Mr. Simms, I think you may proceed whenever you're ready.

Richard A. Simms:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The Special Master's report in this case was filed in January of this year, and since then it has not gone unnoticed.

I think the Court should know that the Community of Western Water Attorneys, as well as water administrators in the West, are bewildered by the Master's recommendations and are apprehensive about the outcome of this case.

I would like to quote briefly from the--

Warren E. Burger:

The important thing, Mr. Simms, of course, is whether we understand it, isn't it?

Richard A. Simms:

--I agree, that is the important thing.

But I think it's also important that the Court understands what people in the West feel about the case.

I'd like to quote briefly from the Western Natural Resource Litigation Digest, the quarterly publication of the Western Conference of Attorneys General.

In January 1982, the court's special master recommended that Colorado Fuel and Iron Steel Corporation be given first priority on the Vermejo River in an action brought by the State of Colorado for the apportionment of the river between the states of Colorado and New Mexico.

For the past 100 years, the river has been fully appropriated in New Mexico.

The decision ignored both New Mexico's historical dependence on the Vermejo and their traditional guiding principle that prior appropriation governs.

The Special Master's new test balances the economic efficiency of existing uses against the efficiency of proposed uses.

In this case, the test is used in a further departure from previous case law to vary the priorities such that existing economies based upon senior uses are undermined.

John Paul Stevens:

Mr. Simms, who wrote that?

Richard A. Simms:

I don't know who wrote it.

It was written--

John Paul Stevens:

Those are some anonymous author's comments?

Richard A. Simms:

--It was written by the editorial staff of the Digest in San Francisco.

I gave them no suggestions.

I was quite surprised to find it myself.

John Paul Stevens:

I find it kind of a surprising authority if you don't even know who wrote it.

Richard A. Simms:

Well, it was written by the editorial staff of the Western Conference of Attorneys General.

Thurgood Marshall:

I personally find it kind of amazing that you cite it to us.

You can't even given us any authority for it at all.

Suppose we get on to the central issues of the case.

Richard A. Simms:

I think the central issues are three, Justice Burger.

I think the Special Master started with a manifest misunderstanding of equitable apportionment.

I think he ignored the relevant facts in this case and attributed legal significance to irrelevant facts.