Federal Reserved Rights
Federal reserved rights were created when the United States reserved land from the public domain for uses such as Indian reservations, military bases and national parks, forests and monuments. [See also Pueblo Rights].
One of the major characteristics of federal reserved water rights is that they often are senior in priority to water rights established under state law. The date of priority of a federal reserved right is the date the reservation was established, and many were established prior to state water claims.
While judicial decisions have been clarifying the dimensions of federal reserved rights throughout the West, reserved rights are of less importance in California than in other Western states because of the California Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in In Re Waters of Hallett Creek Stream System.
Here, the court ruled that under California law, riparian rights exist on federal reserved lands abutting state waterways. These riparian rights are broader than federal reserved rights that are limited by the purpose of the reservation and priority date of its establishment.
The court, however, placed several limitations on the government’s riparian rights including:
- distinguishing between federal riparian lands that are “reserved lands” and those that are public domain— land that can be settled, put up for public sale or otherwise dispose
- ruling that the United States’ riparian rights on public domain lands are subordinate to existing appropriative rights
- establishing that the government’s riparian rights were unexercised and could be subordinated to existing exercised water rights.