Nevada v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Bleckly County Superior Court

DOCKET NO.: 81-2245
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 463 US 110 (1983)
ARGUED: Apr 27, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1983

Edwin S. Kneedler – on behalf of the United States
E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr. – on behalf of Nevada
Frederick G. Girard – on behalf of Truckee-Carson Irrigation District
Robert S. Pelcyger – on behalf of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians

Facts of the case


Media for Nevada v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 27, 1983 in Nevada v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 24, 1983 in Nevada v. United States

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

The opinion in 81-2245, Nevada v. United States and two companion cases will be announced by Justice Rehnquist.

William H. Rehnquist:

These cases involved conflicting claims to water rights in western Nevada.

Many people who live east to the Mississippi River may not appreciate the importance of water in the arid west.

No state east to the Mississippi River receives an average rainfall of less than 30 inches a year.

But the part of Nevada we’re talking about in this case receives an average rainfall of only six inches a year.

In that country, if you want to grow any crop on your land, you must bring water to the land by irrigation.

Western Nevada receives its water largely from several rivers which rise on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the boundary between California and Nevada.

They flow out of the mountains and into western Nevada and end up in lakes with no outlets or else disappearing into the desert and places called sinks.

The present litigation relates to water rights on one of these streams, the Truckee River, which rises in the High Sierra, flows into and out of Lake Tahoe down through Reno and after a course of a 120 miles, it empties into Pyramid Lake which has no outlet.

Pyramid Lake is widely considered the most beautiful desert lake in North America.

And at one time, it had a cutthroat trout which grew to world record size.

In 1859, the Department of the Interior set aside nearly half a million acres and what is now western Nevada as a reservation for the areas Paiute Indians.

The reservation includes Pyramid Lake, the lower reaches of the Truckee River and the bottom lands alongside the lower Truckee.

When Congress enacted the Reclamation Act of 1902, the Federal Government was entrusted with the responsibility of assisting settlers in the west to bring waters to those naturally arid lands.

One of the first reclamation projects designated by the Secretary of the Interior after the enactment of the Act of 1902 was the so-called Newlands Project, consisting of 200,000 acres in western Nevada and the neighborhood of the present town of Fallon.

This project was designed to irrigate future firms in the area with waters from both the Truckee and the Carson Rivers.

In order to settle claims to the waters from this river before the Project was fully operative, the Government brought an action in the Federal District Court in Nevada in 1913, 70 years ago, to quiet title to certain water rights.

The Government claimed first on behalf of the Paiute Indians and second, on behalf of itself for the benefit of future settlers within the Newlands irrigation project.

This irrigation known as the Orr Ditch suit continued for more than 40 years.

But finally, in 1944, a final decree was entered specifying the water rights of all interests involved.

One of the results of diverting the water out of the Truckee River for irrigation was that the water level in Pyramid Lake declined and thereby threatened the Indian fisheries in Pyramid Lake.

And so in 1973, the United States filed a present action in the Nevada court on behalf of the Indians seeking to overturn in part the results of the Court judgment which had been entered nearly 40 — 30 years before.

The District Court dismissed the Government’s complaint, finding that under the well settled principle of judicial reports called by the Latin name of res judicata, this so-called Orr Ditch decree barred the Government in the intervener, Paiute Tribe for making a new claim at this late date

The Court of Appeals affirmed in part but held that the earlier decree did not prevent the Tribe from litigating its claim against the settlers who are induced to move into the area by Government representations of project water.

For reasons more fully explained in an opinion filed with the clerk’s office, we now affirm the Court of Appeals in part and reverse in part.

We agree with the Court of Appeals that the Orr Ditch decree concluded the controversy concerning the Truckee water rights between the United States, the Tribe, the Orr Ditch defendants and subsequent appropriators.

Unlike the Court of Appeals, however, we also believe that since the interests of both the Tribe and the Project landowners were separately advanced and litigated by the Government in Orr Ditch, both should be bound by that decree.

We reject the argument that the Government violated its fiduciary duty to the Tribe by representing potentially conflicting interests.

The Government was simply doing what Congress have directed it to do.

Justice Brennan while joined the opinion of the Court has filed a concurring opinion.

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

Thank you, Justice Rehnquist.