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Yellen Versus Imperial Irrigation District Collection
MSS 0677  
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Acquisition Information
  • Related Materials
  • Preferred Citation
  • Publication Rights
  • Historical Background
  • Scope and Content of Collection

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Yellen Versus Imperial Irrigation District Collection
    Identifier/Call Number: MSS 0677
    Contributing Institution: Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego
    9500 Gilman Drive
    La Jolla, California, 92093-0175
    Languages: English
    Physical Description: 0.4 Linear feet (1 archives box)
    Date (inclusive): 1970 - 1972
    Abstract: The files contain the official transcripts of two federal trials regarding water use in the Imperial Valley and the non-enforcement of two provisions of the original Reclamation Act of 1902. The provisions concerned a 160-acre land size limitation and a residency provision. The provisions required those seeking federal water benefits to sell off land in excess of 160 acres and to be residents on or near the land they wished to irrigate. The first trial concerned the 160-acre limitation and was titled, "United States vs. Imperial Irrigation District," (December 1-3, 1970) and would eventually reach the United States Supreme Court. The second trial concerned the residency requirement and was titled, "Yellen vs. Secretary of Interior," (April 25-26, 1972). Included within the transcripts are the testimony of landowners, government officials, economists, and land and water use experts. Additionally, the transcripts contain legal arguments regarding the admission of evidence, intervention into the case by the landowners, and other legal issues.
    Creator: Imperial Irrigation District (Calif.).
    Creator: Yellen, Ben, 1907-1994

    Acquisition Information

    Acquired 2007.

    Related Materials

    Ben Yellen Papers (MSS 193); Ben Yellen Correspondence with Arthur Brunwasser (MSS 305); Ben Yellen Correspondence with Charles L. Smith (MSS 667).

    Preferred Citation

    Yellen Versus Imperial Irrigation District Collection, MSS 0677. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego.

    Publication Rights

    Publication rights are held by the creator of the collection.

    Historical Background

    The Reclamation Act of 1902 authorized the United States government to create water projects to help open arid lands to small farmers. The original act included provisions to ensure wide distribution of the benefits of federal projects and to prevent land speculation and monopolies. These provisions are at the center of contention in the two trials contained in this collection. Section 5 of the Reclamation Act provided that no right to the use of water for land in private ownership should be sold for a tract exceeding 160 acres to any one landowner. Section 5 also required that recipients of federal water benefits live on or near the land that was irrigated.
    The Imperial Valley is an area located in southeastern California and lies below sea level. It is an arid desert in its natural state but irrigation began in the Valley long before the federal water projects. Since 1901, a privately-funded delivery and distribution system had harnessed Colorado River water for irrigation via the Alamo Canal. This canal ran for over sixty miles through Mexico before re-entering the United States to irrigate the Imperial Valley, and continued in existence until 1940, well after the building of the All American Canal. Therefore, the Imperial Valley landowners argued that they were exempt from the 160-acre and residency requirements because they possessed pre-existing rights to the Colorado River water.
    When the seven states of the Colorado River Basin executed the 1922 Colorado River Compact they included Article VIII stating, "[p]resent perfected rights to the beneficial use of waters of the Colorado River System are unimpaired by this compact." Further, when the Boulder Canyon Project Act became effective in 1929, (authorizing funding for the Hoover and Imperial Dams, as well as the All American Canal) it required the Secretary of the Interior to observe rights to Colorado River water that had been perfected under state law at the time the law became effective. By 1929, the Imperial Valley was already irrigating 424,145 acres of land without any restrictions as to size or residency.
    Dr. Ben Yellen, a long-time social justice activist in the Imperial Valley, brought the initial suit against the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) in federal district court to enforce the 160-acre limitation. He and former farmworker-residents of the Imperial Valley argued that the non-enforcement of the limitation denied these farmers of modest income an opportunity to buy land. The United States Supreme Court later upheld the farmers right to bring this cause of action even though the farmers could not, with certainty, establish that they would be able to purchase land even if the 160-acre limitation were upheld. Dr. Yellen also instituted a lawsuit against the IID for enforcement of the residency requirement.
    In 1964, the Department of the Interior, under which the Bureau of Reclamation functions, reversed decades of administrative practice, and agreed that non-enforcement of the 160-acre limitation in the Imperial Valley was inconsistent with reclamation law principles. When the Interior Department attempted to enforce the provision, the IID sought and won an injunction to stop enforcement. The United States then brought suit against the IID and the partial official transcript of that action is contained in the files of this collection.
    The subsequent history of the cases is not contained within this collection. The "United States vs. Imperial Irrigation District" case was appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which held that the 160-acre provision should be enforced against the IID landowners. The victory for Dr. Yellen and the small farmers of the Imperial Valley was short-lived.
    In 1980, the case, consolidated with Yellen's earlier lawsuit and a State of California lawsuit, was conclusively settled by the United States Supreme Court when it reversed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' decision. Justice Byron R. White, writing for a unanimous Court, in the case now titled, "Bryant v. Yellen," held that Imperial Valley landowners as of 1929 (the year the Boulder River Canyon Project Act became effective), had "present perfected rights" (now in trust with the IID) that could be exercised without regard to the land limitation provisions.
    By analogy, this rationale seems to support the non-enforcement of the residency requirement at issue in "Yellen vs. Secretary of Interior," but the Supreme Court did not address that issue, and the ultimate outcome of that case is not within the collections files.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The Yellen Versus Imperial Irrigation District Collection documents two trials held in the federal district court of Southern California regarding water use in the Imperial Valley of California. The files contain photocopies of official court transcripts generated for purposes of appealing the decisions reached at the trial court level. The files are arranged in two series: 1) UNITED STATES VS. IMPERIAL IRRIGATION DISTRICT, and 2) YELLEN VS. SECRETARY OF INTERIOR.
    The first trial's testimony of witnesses took place on December 1-3, 1970. The trial concerned the non-enforcement of a 160-acre land limitation in order to be eligible to receive water for irrigation from the Boulder River Canyon Project. Witnesses included former and current employees of the Bureau of Reclamation, notably including Edward Weinberg, former solicitor of the Department of the Interior; Robert F. Carter, general manager of the Imperial Irrigation District (IDD); numerous Imperial Valley landowners who owned more than 160 acres of land; and, expert witnesses regarding the economic benefits generated by the federal water project.
    The partial official transcripts are arranged chronologically in three parts. The third part ends with Judge Turrentine discussing the schedule for the lawyers' closing arguments but those transcripts are not included in the collection.
    The second trial (April 25-26, 1972) dealt with the non-enforcement of the residency requirement in the Imperial Valley. The series contains four files. Parts 1-3 contain the official pre-trial and trial transcripts. The fourth file is a supplemental transcript of the sworn deposition of an Imperial Valley non-resident landowner.
    Included in the files is a pre-trial transcript of the successful argument made by the Imperial Valley landowners regarding why they should be allowed to intervene in the case; witness testimony including a government loan administrator describing loan programs for small farmers; current and former Bureau of Reclamation employees regarding Bureau policies; an agricultural economist regarding the effect of enforcement of the residency requirement; and, long-time Imperial Valley landowners who were no longer residents but whose land was still receiving water from the Project.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Imperial Irrigation District (Calif.).
    Imperial Valley (Calif. and Mexico) -- Water rights
    Irrigation laws -- California
    Irrigation laws -- Economic aspects -- California
    Irrigation water -- California, Southern
    Water resources development -- California, Southern -- Finance
    Water transfer -- California, Southern
    Water-supply -- California, Southern