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Legal News Podcast - Supreme Court: Wyoming Farmers Permitted to Use Sprinkler Irrigation Affecting Yellowstone River

The Supreme Court finds modern irrigation methods do not violate the water rights of several states, and, a class action lawsuit seeks $50 million from Google for tracking cell phone users' locations. Hear these and other stories from LexisNexis® Mealey's Publications. Copyright© 2011 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. For the latest litigation news headlines, visit or

The U.S. Supreme Court on May 2 held that Wyoming farmers and ranchers are not violating a 1950s water pact with Montana by using modern sprinkler irrigation that returns less runoff water to the Yellowstone River system used by Montana's farmers and ranchers (State of Montana v. State of Wyoming and State of North Dakota, 22O137 ORG, U.S. Sup.). Rights to water in the Powder and Tongue rivers, which flow from Wyoming to Montana, as well as other parts of the Yellowstone River system, are governed by the Yellowstone River Compact.

The State of Montana brought an action against the State of Wyoming alleging that Wyoming violated the compact by allowing its users of river water to alter their irrigation systems which resulted in less water being returned to the river for use by downstream users in Montana. Montana filed an exception to the report of a Special Master which found that Montana failed to state a claim.

Delivering the high court's opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said that because the compact incorporates the ordinary doctrine of appropriation without significant qualification, and because in the two states that doctrine allows the appropriators to improve their irrigation systems, Montana's increased efficiency allegation fails to state a claim for breach of the compact. Certain types of changes in water use can occur even though they may harm downstream appropriators. For instance, an appropriator may increase his consumption by changing to a more water-intensive crop so long as he makes no change in acreage irrigated or amount of water diverted. Ordinary, day-to-day operational changes or repairs also do not violate the no-injury rule. Consumption can even be increased by adding farm acreage, so long as that was part of the plan from the start, and diligently pursued through the years. "Improvements to irrigation systems seem to be the sort of changes that fall outside the no-injury rule as it exists in Montana and Wyoming," Thomas stated.

Dissenting, Justice Antonin Scalia said the compact's "focus on whether a use depletes a river's water supply - not whether it diverts the river's flow - significantly limits the volume of water to which Wyoming is entitled."

Wyoming Irrigation Sprinker System subscribers can access the Lexis enhanced version of the Montana v. Wyoming, 2011 U.S. LEXIS 3369 (U.S. May 2, 2011) decision with summary, headnotes, and Shepard's. subscribers can access the transcript of the oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court at MONTANA, Petitioner v. WYOMING AND NORTH DAKOTA, 2011 U.S. Trans. LEXIS 1 (U.S. Trans. 2011). subscribers can access the briefs filed in the United States Supreme Court at MONTANA v. WYOMING, 2008 U.S. Briefs 137 and MONTANA v. WYOMING & NORTH DAKOTA, 2007 U.S. Briefs 137.

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