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Winters v. United States


The Court's decision created the "Winters doctrine" which guided the future management of Native reserved water rights. Oddly, for decades after Winters, the issue of Native American water rights was largely ignored. The Winters doctrine was eventually affirmed in Arizona v. California (1963) concerning Lower Colorado River water. The Court went a step further than Winters by actually identifying how to determine the quantity of water desirable for tribal use. The Court ruled the quantity should not be based on the size of the existing reservation population, but on the amount of reservation acreage potentially productive with irrigation.

Some key characteristics of the doctrine included: (1) establishment of an Indian reservation by treaty, statute or executive order included an implied reservation of rights to water sources within and bordering the reservation; (2) the water rights were reserved at the date the reservation was created; (3) the quantity of water reserved for Native American use was the amount sufficient to irrigate all the practical reservation acreage; and, (4) the water rights can not be lost by non-use. Also, those who held water rights prior to creation of a reservation could retain those rights. As a result of Winters, Native American rights blended aspects of appropriative and riparian rights. While the rights became established at the time a reservation was established and the rights of existing users were recognized, rights to water from streams within or bordering reservations were tied to the land and could not be lost because of non-use.

The Winters doctrine also served as a model broader non-Native application. Any time the federal government reserved land for a public purpose, water rights were also provided in sufficient quantity and quality so that the purpose for which the land was designated could be satisfied.

A lingering difficulty with such implied reserved rights was that normally the actual volume of water reserved was not known. For example, concerns were that designation of lands for wilderness purposes would carry some unspecified quantity of water. The manner in which water allocations were recognized enormously affected continued development in the West. Many worried that unresolved reserved water rights could limit the efficient use of limited water resources. Furthermore, uncertainty persisted even when rights were awarded since the conditions of ownership were still not well defined. Could the rights could be bought, sold, or traded for other water rights? To avoid expensive and lengthy legal battles, many states and tribes pursued complex negotiations in the late twentieth century to specifically establish water allocations for the various users.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917Winters v. United States - Significance, Water For The Pursuit Of "civilization", A Special Right, Impact, Reservation Populations