APPEAL FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
White, McKenna, Holmes, Hughes, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds
MR. JUSTICE VAN DEVANTER delivered the opinion of the court.
This is a bill in equity to enjoin a proceeding before the State Water Board of Oregon looking to the ascertainment and adjudication of the relative rights of the various claimants to the waters of Silvies River in that State, the grounds upon which such relief is sought being (a) that it is essential to protect a jurisdiction previously acquired by the District Court, and (b) that the local statute, 3 Lord's Oregon Laws, Title XLIII, chap. 6; Laws 1913, chaps. 82, 86 and 97, authorizing and controlling the proceeding, is repugnant to the due process of law clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. An interlocutory injunction was denied by the District Court, three judges sitting, 217 Fed. Rep. 95, and motions to dismiss the bill as disclosing no right to relief were afterwards sustained.
The plaintiff, a California corporation, owns large tracts of land along the river and claims a vested right to use upon these lands a portion of the waters of the stream for irrigation and other beneficial purposes. The defendants are the members of the State Water Board and a few out of many persons and corporations claiming similar rights in the waters of the river. The statute under which the proceeding assailed is being conducted was enacted in 1909 and amended in 1913, and most of the rights affected by the proceeding are claimed to have arisen prior to the
statute -- the plaintiff's as much as thirty years before. All claimants to the waters of the river, including the plaintiff, were brought into the proceeding by due notice and in conformity with the statute.
A general outline of the statute, as it has been construed by the Supreme Court of the State,*fn1 will serve to simplify the questions to be considered. It recognizes that in Oregon rights to use the waters of streams for irrigation and other beneficial purposes may be acquired by appropriation, adopts a comprehensive scheme for securing an economical, orderly and equitable distribution of the waters among those entitled to their use, incidentally prescribes a mode of determining the relative rights of the various claimants to the waters of each stream, and in large measure commits the administration of the scheme to the State Water Board and officers acting under the supervision of its members. When one or more users of water from any stream request it the board, if finding that the conditions justify it, is required to set in motion a proceeding looking to an ascertainment and adjudication of all rights to the waters of that stream. Every material step in the proceeding is to be attended with notice and an opportunity to be heard, the adequacy of which is manifest. In the beginning each claimant is required to present to the division superintendent a sworn statement of his claim showing its nature, inception and extent and all the particulars upon which it is based. These statements are to be exposed to public inspection, so that every claimant may determine whether there is occasion for him to oppose or contest the claims of others. The State Engineer, or a qualified assistant, is to measure the flow of the stream, the carrying capacity of the several ditches taking water
therefrom, and the land irrigated or susceptible of irrigation from each ditch, and also to take such other observations as may be essential to a proper understanding of the claims involved, a report of all of which is to be made in writing. Any claimant desiring to contest the claim of another may present to the division superintendent a sworn statement showing the grounds of contest and obtain a hearing before that officer at which the parties may present whatever evidence they have and may secure the attendance of witnesses by compulsory process. After the evidence in the contests is taken, it and the sworn statements of the several claimants, with the report of the engineer's measurements and observations, are to be laid before the board, -- the statements and the report both being regarded as evidence appropriate to be considered. The board is then to examine all the evidence, make findings of fact therefrom, enter an order embodying the findings and provisionally determining the relative rights of the several claimants, and transmit the evidence and a copy of the order to the circuit court of the county wherein the stream or some part of it lies. Exceptions to the board's findings and order may be presented to the court and in disposing of them the court is to follow as near as may be the practice prevailing in suits in equity. All parties in interest, including the board as representing the State, are to be fully heard. Further evidence may be taken by the court, or the matter may be remanded with directions that additional evidence be taken and that the matter be again considered by the board, in which event the evidence and a copy of the further order of the board are to be transmitted to the court as in the first instance. In short, upon exceptions the court may re-examine the whole matter and enter such decree as the law and the evidence may require, whether it be an affirmance or a modification of the board's order. And even where no exceptions are presented a decree giving effect
to the order is to be entered, that is to say, the matter is not to be left as if the order in itself constituted an effective adjudication. An appeal from the court's decree may be taken to the Supreme Court of the State "as in other cases in equity," except that the time therefor is substantially shortened. When the rights involved are adjudicated the decree is to be "conclusive as to all prior rights and the rights of all existing claimants," and the right of each claimant as so settled is to be appropriately entered and shown upon the records of the board and upon those of the proper county. Each claimant also is to receive from the board a certificate setting forth the priority, extent and purpose of his right, and, if it be for irrigation purposes, a description of the land to which it is appurtenant. That the statute is not intended to take away or impair any vested right to any water or to its use is expressly declared in its first and seventieth sections, 3 Lord's Oregon Laws, Tit. XLIII, c. 6, §§ 6594, 6595.
At the time the statute was adopted, and continuously until this suit was begun, there were pending undetermined in the District Court*fn1a two suits in equity brought by the present plaintiff, one against two Oregon corporations and the other against another corporation of that State, in each of which suits the relative rights of the parties thereto in the waters of Silvies River were in ...