This is the "Home" page of the "Spotlight Collection: Water Law: Arizona v. California" guide.
Alternate Page for Screenreader Users
Skip to Page Navigation
Skip to Page Content

Spotlight Collection: Water Law: Arizona v. California  

Highlighting our unique collection of documents in the controversial case of Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).
Last Updated: Mar 23, 2017 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Home Print Page

Arizona v. California (1963): A Landmark Water Law Case

Arizona v. California (1963): A Landmark Water Law Case

In 1924, Arizona refused to ratify the Colorado River Compact. The Compact was a treaty between the seven Colorado River Basin states to allocate water of the Colorado River between the upper and lower basins. The Compact would also allow for the passage of the Boulder Canyon Project Act, which would authorize the construction of the Boulder Dam (later renamed the Hoover Dam) and the All-American Canal. The four upper basin states, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico, were all too eager to ratify the Compact. They wanted to develop reclamation projects for their unused entitlement of river water to prevent fast-growing California from using it first. By passing the Limitation Act of 1929, California assured the other states that it would not use more than the 4.4 million acre-feet the Compact had entitled it to. However, Arizona was still not satisfied. It was known that California water users had contracted for more than 5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water. Also, California claimed that most of Arizona’s entitlement of 3.8 million acre-feet should come from the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado River. Arizona disagreed. Arizona argued that all of its entitlement should come from the mainstream of the Colorado River. Arizona also contended that the Boulder Dam and other reclamation projects on the River primarily benefited California. By the early 1950s, California was transporting more than its entitlement from the Colorado River to the Imperial and Coachella valleys, Los Angeles and San Diego. Three prior lawsuits filed by Arizona against California in the U.S. Supreme Court failed to thwart California’s water lust. In the meantime, California was also preventing Arizona from transporting its entitlement to the fast-growing cities of Phoenix and Tucson where water was needed the most. In 1952, Arizona filed its fourth lawsuit against California and seven public agencies of that state.

In the landmark water law case of Arizona v. California (373 U.S. 546 (1963)), Arizona alleged:

  • That pursuant to the Colorado River Compact and the Boulder Canyon Project Act of 1929, Arizona is entitled to a certain quantity of water from the Colorado River System.
  • That various claims asserted by defendants affected rights asserted by Arizona preventing Arizona from carrying out various projects (namely the Central Arizona Project).

Arizona also requested that its entitlement of 3.8 million acre-feet be forever confirmed and that California’s entitlement of 4.4 million acre-feet be forever fixed.

The trial took place over a two-year period from 1956-1958 at the United States Courthouse in San Francisco and was heard by a special master appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court, Hon. Simon H. Rifkind. The trial produced:

  • 234 witnesses,
  • 4000 exhibits,
  • 22,500 pages of reporters' transcripts, and
  • 3,742 deposition transcripts.

In December 1960, Special Master Rifkin submitted his recommended report and decree to the U.S. Supreme Court. After a record-length sixteen hours of oral arguments the Court reached its decision on June 3, 1963.

The Court ruled in favor of Arizona on all counts:

  • That in the absence of an interstate agreement the Secretary of Interior’s water delivery contracts accomplished the division of water provided for in the Boulder Canyon Project.
  • The Gila River was exclusively Arizona’s (except for a small portion that belonged to New Mexico) and the Gila River’s water would not be counted against Arizona’s Colorado River entitlement.
  • The Secretary of Interior would be authorized to decide how water would be divided during natural calamity or drought.
  • Water rights that pre-dated the Compact had to be satisfied first.

The decision gave the federal government the right to supersede state law in those instances where water had been secured by contract from federal reclamation projects.


Loading  Loading...