Friday, February 17, 2017
Last week I posted a summary of a recent Kansas county district court decision on remand that involved the prior appropriation doctrine. The summary contained the thoughts of my colleague at the Washburn University School of law, Prof. Burke Griggs That post discussed the Haskell County District Court’s recent decision in Garetson Bros. v. American Warrior et al., (Dist. Ct. No. 2012-CV-09), in which the court protected a senior vested water right from impairment by issuing a permanent injunction prohibiting two junior wells from pumping. From a purely judicial standpoint, the case is not complicated. It stands for the proposition that Kansas water law—specifically the prior appropriation doctrine—means what it says: first in time is first in right, and owners of senior wells impaired by junior water rights are entitled to injunctive protections, unqualified by mitigating economic factors.
Today, in part two of the discussion, Prof. Griggs discusses what could be the consequences of the court’s decision.
The Prior Appropriation Doctrine
Westerners supposedly love the prior appropriation doctrine: like frontier whiskey, it is clear and works quickly, even if its effects can be rather harsh. As the Colorado Court of Appeals pointed out long ago in Armstrong v. Larimer County Ditch Co. (27 P. 235, 237 (1891)), the seniors-take-all approach of the prior appropriation doctrine works better than the fair and balanced equities-based approach of eastern water law: it works better because there is not enough water to supply all rights in dry years, and sharing the shortage would make all water rights owners so short of water that no one could make productive use of their share. In the West, as Frank Trelease memorably wrote, “priority is equity.”
If only the issue were that simple. While the clarity of the prior appropriation doctrine shines through the legal decisions in the Garetson case (and especially the earlier and largely controlling opinion in Garetson Bros. v. Am. Warrior, Inc., 347 P.3d 687 (2015)), hydrological, administrative, and political considerations are increasingly clouding that doctrinal clarity.
Hydrological considerations. Garetson is a conflict between rival irrigators who access the non-renewable waters of the Ogallala Aquifer. But, there is also a conflict with groundwater that raises certain hard problems for the prior appropriation doctrine. When the chief engineer shuts off (or “administers”) junior water rights to a stream or river system, the effect of that administration is typically clear and immediate; water prevented from reaching a junior’s canal headgate flows down to supply a senior’s. The administration of rights in an alluvial groundwater system—where the wells are close to the river—has similarly prompt and predictable effects. The Ogallala is different: because its supplies are dispersed and non-renewable, it is not always easy to determine with precision how the groundwater pumping of junior rights in a water rights neighborhood affects or impairs the pumping of a senior right. The architects of the original 1945 Kansas Water Appropriation Act (“KWAA”) recognized this hydrological difference, but deliberately decided to extend the doctrine to groundwater—including the supplies of the Ogallala. The KWAA softened the standards for granting new rights to the Ogallala, but clearly maintained the priority rule for protecting existing rights. The 1957 revisions to the KWAA were focused on allowing the development of new Ogallala water rights, and the chief engineers did their statutory duty: because water was available for rights under these softer standards, more water rights were granted to the Ogallala than the aquifer could durably sustain. As a consequence, by 1970 or so, groundwater depletion was becoming a serious problem. The Kansas Division of Water Resources (“DWR”) responded to this hydrological problem by developing procedures (at K.A.R. 5-4-1 and 5-4-1a) which set forth the process by which DWR investigates and determines impairment complaints in a groundwater system. Despite these procedures, however, a hard hydrological fact of the Ogallala remains: in order to fully protect one groundwater right to the Ogallala, it may be necessary to shut down many junior rights, more rights than are administered in a typical surface water rights administration. This is the principal reason why so few impairment complaints have been filed over the Ogallala. Owners of senior water rights know their rights, but they also know that the administration of junior rights may affect many of their neighbors—as well as junior rights which they themselves own.
Administrative difficulties. The conflict between the legal clarity of the prior appropriation doctrine and the administrative difficulty of determining impairment in a groundwater-exclusive system is one of the central issues in the Garetson case. Although DWR was investigating the impairment of the Garetsons’ senior right, they decided to withdraw their impairment complaint, and took the matter to court directly. K.S.A. 82a-717a and 82a-716 clearly provide a court-based avenue for protecting senior rights, independent of DWR. Under that approach, the senior right holder can obtain injunctive relief upon a finding of impairment—which is just what the Garetsons obtained. However, it is important to note that the facts in Garetson are somewhat unusual. The court was able to use hydrological data along with data concerning pumping effects which DWR and the Kansas Geological Survey had produced during the time in which the Garetsons were pursuing the administrative avenue of resolving their impairment through K.A.R. 5-4-1a. Without such existing data—and the impairment reports which DWR produced in a very timely fashion in this case—the court would likely not have been able to issue its temporary and permanent injunctions so expeditiously.
Kansas water politics. Those who lose in court often seek redress in the legislature, and often do so for less money. The clarity of the court’s injunctions in Garetson has promoted a substantial legislative reaction. In 2016, the defendants (American Warrior) and Southwest Kansas Groundwater Management District #3 sponsored legislation which would have substantially weakened the ability of senior water rights holders to protect their rights through the independent court-based avenues of K.S.A. 82a-716 and 82a-717a. This legislation did not succeed, but the ongoing importance of Garetson prompted the Kansas Department of Agriculture (“KDA”), which exercises supervisory authority over DWR, to consider a legislative compromise between the administrative-based avenues of K.A.R. 5-4-1 and 5-4-1a and the above-mentioned court-based avenues. Together with major agricultural powers such as the Kansas Farm Bureau and the Kansas Livestock Association, they are sponsoring H.B. 2099. http://www.kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/measures/documents/hb2099_00_0000.pdf
Distilled to its essence, the legislation eliminates the two-avenue approach in favor of a sequential one: the senior water rights holder claiming impairment must first seek administrative relief through DWR to protect his or her right; DWR must promptly act upon the impairment complaint; only then, after the administrative process is complete, can the senior holder pursue an injunction in court. But, this last step might not be necessary, provided that DWR deploys the impairment report in the service of water rights administration.
H.B. 2099 is a classic case of a wide-ranging legislative reaction to a single lawsuit. It raises at least three difficult questions. First of all, is the legislation legally necessary? Not really: Garetson was properly decided, and we have yet to see a snowballing effect wherein thousands of senior water rights owners begin to use the priority doctrine in an ominous way, threatening their junior neighbors. (Such threats would be perfectly legal, albeit impolite.) Second, should a conflict between water users—competing property owners—be completely transformed into a regulatory action in which the chief engineer’s impairment investigation and any consequent decisions about water rights administration are the central issues under judicial review? Perhaps. It is, after all, the chief engineer’s statutory duty to investigate impairment and to protect senior rights. That is why Kansas has an administrative system for water rights protection in the first place. But there is a third and troubling question: does the legislation diminish the courts’ undeniable powers to protect private property rights? Influential stakeholders may jealously guard their political clout, and use it in the legislature to obtain the ends they seek; but the courts are just as jealous and protective of their independent powers to resolve property disputes and to protect property rights, with or without the procedures prescribed by H.B. 2099. Moreover, the KWAA provides numerous protections for owners of senior rights, outside of K.S.A. 82a-716 and 82a-717a. Even if H.B. 2099 were to be enacted, the courts might cite those and other protections to circumvent it—including protections available under the Kansas Judicial Relief Act. They have done it before in construing the scope of the KWAA.
In sum, the Kansas water rights community is again facing a choice: whether to accept the consequences of prior appropriation in a groundwater context, or to attenuate those consequences by limiting the options of senior water rights holders to protect their private property rights. In this they are only human. As St. Augustine famously wrote, “please Lord, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”