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PYRAMID LAKE PAIUTE TRIBE OF INDIANS v. MORTON

November 8, 1972

PYRAMID LAKE PAIUTE TRIBE OF INDIANS, Plaintiff,
v.
Rogers C. B. MORTON, Secretary of the Interior, Defendant


Gesell, District Judge.


The opinion of the court was delivered by: GESELL

GESELL, District Judge.

 This is an action by a recognized Indian tribe challenging a regulation issued by the Secretary of the Interior. The matter came before the Court for trial without a jury following an extended period of pretrial activity during which issues were narrowed and efforts to resolve the controversy by negotiation failed. Claiming that the regulation should be set aside as arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of the Secretary's authority, the Tribe invokes applicable provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 706. A declaration of rights and affirmative injunctive relief is also sought on the ground the Secretary has unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed required actions, 5 U.S.C. § 706(1).

 The Court's jurisdiction to review the challenged regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act is not contested. The Tribe is an aggrieved party directly affected by the regulation and is proceeding in good faith. The controversy is ripe and immediate. All administrative remedies have been exhausted and the Secretary's action is final.

 The regulation was signed by the Secretary on September 14, 1972, appears in the Federal Register, 37 Fed.Reg.19838, and became effective November 1, 1972. It is designed to implement pre-existing general regulations *fn1" by establishing the basis on which water will be provided during the succeeding twelve months to the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which is located in Churchill County, Nevada, some 50 miles east of Reno. The Tribe contends that the regulation delivers more water to the District than required by applicable court decrees and statutes, and improperly diverts water that otherwise would flow into nearby Pyramid Lake located on the Tribe's reservation.

 This Lake has been the Tribe's principal source of livelihood. Members of the Tribe have always lived on its shores and have fished its waters for food. Following directives of the Department of Interior in 1859, which were confirmed by Executive Order signed by President Grant in 1874, the Lake, together with land surrounding the Lake and the immediate valley of the Truckee River which feeds into the Lake, have been reserved for the Tribe and set aside from the public domain. The area has been consistently recognized as the Tribe's aboriginal home. See United States v. Sturgeon, 6 SAWY. 29, 27 F.Cas. 1357, No. 16,413 (D.Nev.1879), aff'd, 27 F.Cas. 1358; United States v. Walker River Irr. Dist., 104 F.2d 334 (9th Cir. 1939).

 Recently, the United States, by original petition in the Supreme Court of the United States, filed September, 1972, claims the right to use of sufficient water of the Truckee River for the benefit of the Tribe to fulfill the purposes for which the Indian Reservation was created, "including the maintenance and preservation of Pyramid Lake and the maintenance of the lower reaches of the Truckee as a natural spawning ground for fish and other purposes beneficial to and satisfying the needs" of the Tribe. United States v. States of Nevada and California, (No. 59 Original, October Term 1972), complaint at 14.

 Appended to this Memorandum Opinion is a map which shows the available sources of water supply in relationship to Pyramid Lake and the District. The area involved is a water shortage area characterized by seasonal and yearly variations in available supply. Beneficial irrigation for farming and other uses within the District are accommodated through some 600 miles of main water ditches and drains and the water is ultimately parcelled out through 1,500 delivery points. The water fed into this system comes from the Carson River following storage in Lahontan Reservoir and by diversion of water from the Truckee River at Derby Dam where it passes through the Truckee Canal to be stored in the Lahontan Reservoir for subsequent or simultaneous release. The Secretary entered into a contract with the District in 1926 and this contract is still in effect (Def. Ex. 2).

 As the map so clearly shows, any water diverted from the Truckee at Derby Dam for the District is thereby prevented in substantial measure from flowing further north into Pyramid Lake. The Lake is a unique natural resource of almost incomparable beauty. It has no outflow, and as a desert lake depends largely on Truckee River inflow to make up for evaporation and other losses. It is approximately five miles wide and twenty-five miles long and now has a maximum depth of 335 feet. Although the Lake has risen a few feet in recent years, it has dropped more than 70 feet since 1906. A flow of 385,000 acre feet of water per year from the Truckee River into the Lake is required merely to maintain its present level. The decreased level and inflow have had the effect of making fish native to the Lake endangered protected species, and have unsettled the erosion and salinity balance of the Lake to a point where the continued utility of the Lake as a useful body of water is at hazard. *fn2"

 The regulation under attack is the most recent of a series of regulations issued from year to year since 1967 pursuant to general policies established by the Secretary (see 43 C.F.R. Part 418 (1972) and Def. Ex. 3). The Tribe contends that the Secretary's action is an arbitrary abuse of discretion in that the Secretary has ignored his own guidelines and failed to fulfill his trust responsibilities to the Tribe by illegally and unnecessarily diverting water from Pyramid Lake.

 The focus of the inquiry has been to determine whether the 378,000 acre feet of water which the regulation contemplates will be diverted from the Truckee River at Derby Dam may be justified on a rational basis. This determination must be made in the light of three major factors which necessarily control the Secretary's action: namely, the Secretary's contract with the District, certain applicable court decrees, and his trust responsibilities to the Tribe. The Secretary and the Tribe are in substantial agreement that these are the factors to be weighed. The issue, therefore, comes down to whether or not the Secretary's resolution of conflicting demands created by these factors was effectuated arbitrarily rather than in the sound exercise of discretion.

 The Court has carefully reviewed the processes by which the Secretary arrived at the disputed regulation. The Secretary had before him various written recommendations from interested agencies and experts, including responsible expert studies presented by the Tribe. *fn3" There was a wide variation in these recommendations suggesting diversion of water in varying amounts ranging from 287,000 acre feet to 396,000 acre feet. All purported to be made on the basis of guidelines and policies previously set by the Secretary. After reviewing these written submissions, the Secretary conferred with the Assistant Secretary for Water and Power Resources (with authority over the Bureau of Reclamation) and the Assistant Secretary for Public Land Management (with authority over Indian Affairs) and made what one of these Assistants characterized as a "judgment call." It is affirmatively stated that the Secretary did not accept the recommendation of any particular person or group. The record, therefore, is completely devoid of any explanation or indication of the factors or computations which he took into account in arriving at the diversion figure of 378,000 acre feet. The grounds of his action are therefore not disclosed and there is no way of knowing the basis on which his conclusions rested. Since the record is as complete on this score as it ever can be, the Government has failed to meet its burden of establishing that this decision was anything but arbitrary. See Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, 401 U.S. 402, 91 S. Ct. 814, 28 L. Ed. 2d 136 (1971); Environmental Defense Fund, Inc. v. Ruckelshaus, 142 U.S. App. D.C. 74, 439 F.2d 584 (1971); DeVito v. Shultz, 300 F. Supp. 381 (D.D.C.1969).

 Furthermore, while the Secretary's good faith is not in question, his approach to the difficult problem confronting him misconceived the legal requirements that should have governed his action. A "judgment call" was simply not legally permissible. The Secretary's duty was not to determine a basis for allocating water between the District and the Tribe in a manner that hopefully everyone could live with for the year ahead. This suit was pending and the Tribe had asserted well-founded rights. The burden rested on the Secretary to justify any diversion of water from the Tribe with precision. It was not his function to attempt an accommodation.

 In order to fulfill his fiduciary duty, the Secretary must insure, to the extent of his power, that all water not obligated by court decree or contract with the District goes to Pyramid Lake. *fn4" The United States, acting through the Secretary of Interior, "has charged itself with moral obligations of the highest responsibility and trust. Its conduct, as disclosed in the acts of those who represent it in dealings with the Indians, should therefore be judged by the most exacting fiduciary standards." Seminole Nation v. United States, 316 U.S. 286, 297, 62 S. Ct. 1049, 1054, 86 L. Ed. 1480 (1942); Navajo Tribe of Indians v. United States, 364 F.2d 320, 176 Ct.Cl. 502 (1966).

 The vast body of case law which recognizes this trustee obligation is amply complemented by the detailed statutory scheme for Indian affairs set forth in Title 25 of the United States Code. *fn5" Undertakings with the Indians are to be liberally construed to the benefit of the Indians, and the duty of the Secretary to do so is particularly apparent. It is not enough to assert the water and fishing rights of the Tribe by filing a suit in the United States Supreme Court.

 The record before the Court clearly establishes the underlying defects and arbitrary nature of the challenged regulation. The Secretary erred in two significant respects. First, he disregarded interrelated court decrees, and, second, he failed to exercise his authority to prevent unnecessary waste within the District. The effect of this is to deprive the Tribe of water without legal justification.

 Two decrees of the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, known as the Orr Water Ditch and Alpine decrees, govern the amounts and conditions under which water shall be available for beneficial uses in the District. Maximums of roughly 4.5 acre feet and 2.92 acre feet measured at farm headgates are provided in the Orr and Alpine decrees, respectively. Approximately 60-75 percent of the water needed to serve the District's 60,000 acres of land is covered by the Alpine decree, and the remaining needed water is covered by the Orr decree. The parties and this Court of course recognize that neither the Secretary nor this Court can adopt or require a regulation that would infringe upon these decrees, and their interpretation and application is, in a number of respects, uncertain. Nonetheless, regardless of ambiguities and inconsistencies, as the Secretary himself recognized in his own guidelines and regulations, 43 C.F.R. § 418.3 (1972), he was required to take both decrees into account. The evidence demonstrates conclusively that the Secretary formulated the regulation by totally ignoring the Alpine decree and must have reached his calculations by relying solely on larger quantities provided by the Orr Water Ditch decree.

 In addition, the evidence conclusively showed that the regulation is wholly inadequate to prevent waste within the District, causing substantial and wholly unnecessary diversion of water from the Truckee River to the obvious detriment of the Tribe. It was amply demonstrated that water could be conserved for Pyramid Lake without offending existing decrees or contractual rights of the District through better management which would prevent unnecessary waste. The amount of exposed water can be reduced to limit evaporation. Better management will lessen seepage and overflow; users can be assessed for water taken; techniques exist for measuring water more efficiently at headgates; land not entitled to water under the decrees and contract with the District can be prevented from taking the water; and by the mere employment of a few individuals the system can be so policed that it will function on a basis consistent with modern water control practices. All of this can be accomplished in spite of the fact that the District has an antiquated system. Failure to take appropriate steps, under the circumstances, by the regulation constitutes agency action unlawfully withheld and unreasonably delayed when viewed in the light of the Secretary's trust responsibilities to the Tribe, 5 U.S.C. § 706(1).


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