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Colorado River Water Conserv. Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800 (1976)

Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States

No. 74-940

Argued January 14, 1976

Decided March 24, 1976*

424 U.S. 800


In order to manage the allocation of water and to resolve conflicting claims thereto, Colorado enacted legislation under which the State is divided into seven Water Divisions, in each of which a procedure is established for the settlement of water claims on a continuous basis. A State Engineer is charged with responsibility for administering the distribution of state waters. Seeking adjudication of reserved rights claimed on behalf of itself and certain Indian tribes, as well as rights based on state law, in waters in certain rivers in Division 7, the United States, which had previously asserted non-Indian reserved water rights in three other State Water Divisions, brought this suit against some l,000 water users in the District Court. The Government invoked District Court jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1345. Shortly thereafter, one of the federal suit defendants sought in the state court for Division 7 to make the Government a party to proceedings in that Division for the purpose of there adjudicating all the Government's claims, both state and federal, pursuant to the McCarran Amendment, 43 U.S.C. § 666. That law provides for consent to join the United States in any suit (1) for the adjudication of water rights, or (2) the administration of such rights, where it appears that the United States owns or is acquiring such rights by appropriation under state law or otherwise. The District Court, on abstention grounds, granted a motion to dismiss the Government's suit. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that jurisdiction for that suit existed under 28 U.S.C. § 1345, and that abstention was inappropriate.


l. The McCarran Amendment, as is clear from its language and legislative history, did not divest the District Court of jurisdiction over this litigation under § 1345. The effect of the Amendment is to give consent to state jurisdiction concurrent with federal jurisdiction over controversies involving federal water rights. Pp. 424 U. S. 806-809.

Page 424 U. S. 801

2. That Amendment includes consent to determine in state court reserved water rights held on behalf of Indians, see United States v. District Court for Eagle County, 401 U. S. 520, and United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, 401 U. S. 527, and the exercise of state jurisdiction does not imperil those rights or breach the Government's special obligation to protect the Indians. Pp. 424 U. S. 809-813.

3. The abstention doctrine is confined to three categories of cases, none of which applies to the litigation at bar; hence the District Court's dismissal on the basis of abstention was inappropriate. Pp. 424 U. S. 813-817.

4. Several factors, however, are present in this litigation that counsel against exercise of concurrent federal jurisdiction, clearly supporting dismissal of the Government's action and resolution of its water right claims in the state court proceedings. Pp. 424 U. S. 817-820.

(a) Most significantly, such dismissal furthers the policy of the McCarran Amendment recognizing the desirability of unified adjudication of water rights and the availability of state systems like the one in Colorado for such adjudication and management of rights to use the State's waters. The Colorado legislation established a continuous proceeding for adjudicating water rights that antedated the Government's suit and reached "all claims, perhaps month by month, but inclusively in the totality," United States v. District Court for Water Div. 5, supra, at 401 U. S. 529. Pp. 424 U. S. 819-820.

(b) Other significant factors include (1) the apparent absence before dismissal of any District Court proceedings other than the filing of the complaint; (2) the extensive involvement of state water rights occasioned by this suit against 1,000 defendants; (3) the distance between the federal court and Division 7; and (4) the Government's existing participation in proceedings in three other Divisions. P. 424 U. S. 820.

504 F.2d 115, reversed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, POWELL, and REHNQUIST, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 424 U. S. 821. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 424 U. S. 826.

Page 424 U. S. 802

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