9.2.1 Rocky Mountains (1900-1930): Water Law

Vineyard Land & Stock Co v. District Court – Nevada, 1918 (171 P. 166); Eden Irrigation Co. v. District Court – Utah, 1922 (211 P. 957)

  • Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, many Western states copied Wyoming’s comprehensive water allocation system.  Landowners did not challenge these laws on substantive due process grounds because many Western state constitutions explicitly sanctioned such laws, and the laws generally protected existing water rights.  But some landowners did complain that the procedures government used to allocate water rights not already taken denied them a fair hearing and should be left to courts, not agencies.
  • Most Rocky Mountain courts rejected such challenges; the Vineyard and Eden Irrigation cases were leading examples of such rejection.  In Vineyard, Nevada’s supreme court confirmed that the state had abandoned riparian rights in favor of prior appropriation and, accordingly, it was proper to create agencies to deal with the disputes the new doctrine would trigger.  In Eden Irrigation, Utah’s supreme court followed the same course:  indeed, it went further by holding that the state could control abandoned as well as unappropriated water rights. 

“If we undertake to make the Constitution a dam to stem the tide of human progress, we may be sure that it will be swept away … The constitutional guaranties must be maintained, but the only way to maintain them is to mold them to the requirements of modern civilization.” – Justice _, in Vineyard

“Let it be remembered that no one can acquire a vested right to waste water in any form.  In this arid country water is life and may not be wasted. … He only obtans a right to the use of a specific quantity of water, and, if conditions change so that he can no longer make use of the water for a useful and beneficial purpose, he is not at liberty to waste it.” – Justice _, in Eden Irrigation