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United States v. New Mexico

Citation: 8 ELR 20564
No. No. 77-510, 438 U.S. 696/11 ERC 1904/(U.S., 07/03/1978) Rev'd

The United States Supreme Court affirms, in a 5-4 decision, a state court ruling, 7 ELR 20696, that the United States does not hold reserved rights to use water from the Rio Mimbres for the purposes of recreation, wildlife preservation, and stock watering in the Gila National Forest. An examination of the historical and legislative background and statutory language of the Organic Act of 1897, as well as consideration of the principle of congressional deference to state water law indicates that Congress intended national forests to be reserved from the public domain for only two purposes: to conserve water flows and to furnish a continuous supply of timber. Under the implied federal reservation of water rights doctrine federal creation of the Gila National Forest implicitly reserved sufficient water to accomplish only these basic purposes and not the additional ones of recreation, fish and wildlife preservation, and stock watering. While the Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960 broadened the purposes for which national forests had previously been administered, the Act was not intended to expand federal reserved water rights in existing forests or to indicate that Congress had originally authorized water reservation for recreational and wildlife preservation purposes.

The dissenters argue that the Organic Act included as a third purpose forest improvement and protection; thus, the United States is entitled to use all water necessary to preserve the Gila National Forest's wildlife as well as its trees because the forest includes the wildlife which inhabits it.

Counsel for Petitioner
James W. Moorman, Ass't Attorney General; Wade H. McCree, Jr., Solicitor General; Stephen R. Barnett, Deputy Solicitor General; William C. Bryson, Ass't Solicitor General; Peter R. Steenland, Dirk D. Snel
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 739-2701

Counsel for Respondent
Toney Anaya, Attorney General; Richard A. Simms, Special Ass't Attorney General
Bataan Memorial Bldg., Santa Fe NM 87503
(505) 988-8851