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Sierra Club v. Andrus

ELR Citation: 10 ELR 20555
Nos. No. 78-2213, 487 F. Supp. 443/(D.D.C., 03/21/1980)

The court upholds the Secretary of the Interior's decision to refrain from joining pending litigation to determine federal reserved rights in certain water courses in the Southwest. Plaintiff contended that a number of planned energy projects will subject federal reserved water rights to serious and immediate threat and that the United States' failure to intervene in a Utah state court proceeding concerning water rights for the projects violates defendants' statutory and trust duties to project federal lands. The court notes that although the national parks statutes and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act impose statutory duties on the Secretary to safeguard the water supply needed for certain public lands, they permit the Secretary considerable discretion in carrying out those duties. The court dismisses as unfounded, however, plaintiff's claim that the Secretary has trust duties beyond his statutory obligations. The court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment, citing three reasons in support of the Secretary's exercise of discretion not to intervene in the state water rights litigation. First, federal reserved water rights cannot be diminished by nonassertion at this time because federal rights are affected neither by later appropriators nor by state court proceedings in which the federal government is not a party. Second, there is no immediate threat to federal water rights because the sponsors of the energy development projects have not acquired vested water rights. Third, the ultimate relief sought by plaintiff is being obtained by negotiation and implementation of the president's 1978 water policy initiatives. Thus, the Secretary's decision to refrain from litigation has a rational basis, is neither arbitrary nor capricious, and is within the discretion accorded him by the relevant statutes.

Counsel for Plaintiff
James H. Cohen, Exec. Director
Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund
1424 K St. NW, Suite 500, Washington DC 20005
(202) 347-1770

Counsel for Defendants
Margaret M. McMahon
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2727

Gary Fisher
Office of the Solicitor
Room 6312, Department of the Interior, 18th and C Sts. NW, Washington DC 20240
(202) 343-5757

James R. Richards, Legal Director
Capital Legal Foundation
1101 17th St. NW, Washington DC 20036
(202) 296-0900