Winters Doctrine Essay

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Winters doctrine i s a legal principle announced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Winters v. United States 207 U.S. 564 (1908). The doctrine created a different legal rule for the distribution of water in the arid western states. The rule is that water rights have been reserved to Indian reservations and public lands in order to make sure that there will be enough water to achieve their assigned purposes. The Winters Doctrine contradicts the law of water rights in the western United States that is applied to privately held lands. The rule generally followed in the west is the “state-based appropriative rights” rule. It is the principle that the rights to water derive from the first time that they were put to beneficial use. The federal rule, however, begins its allocation of water based on the date on which the lands in question were reserved for a dedicated purpose. The federal rule means that a rancher may have been using water for years that was not called upon by an Indian reservation or a federal land management project. The rancher or a farm may therefore have been applying the water to beneficial use long before federal claimants began to seek to use the limited water supplies.

The Winters doctrine developed from a case brought by the U.S. government against Henry Winters, John W. Acker, Chris Cruse, Agnes Downs, and others. Winters and his associates were constructing and maintaining dams on the Milk River in the State of Montana. Their upstream activities impeded and reduced the riparian flow downstream to the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. Winters and his associates lost the case in the federal district court. They were ordered to not interfere in any manner whatsoever with the flow of 5,000 inches of the water of the Milk River. The Circuit Court of Appeals (74 C. C. A. 666, 143 Fed 740) affirmed the decision. In response, Winters, et al., appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The opinion delivered by the Supreme Court noted that the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation had been established on May 1, 1888, when property of the U.S. government was set aside for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboing tribes as an abiding dwelling place. The Court accepted the fact that Winters, et al., had a right to the water under Montana law; it ruled that the federal government had a prior and a different claim that superseded the otherwise lawful state claim. The federal claim to the water was established when Congress created federal lands for special purposes. It did so with the reservation that water is always reserved for the use of the federal facility despite claims of others at a later time.

The Winters decision has meant that all public lands of the federal government are first in line for water uses. This includes national parks, wildlife refuges, national forests, military bases, wilderness areas, or other public purpose areas. Later court cases expanded the rule to include lands set aside by treaty, executive orders, or by federal statutes.


  1. Reid Peyton Chambers, Implementing Winters Doctrine Indian Reserved Water Rights: Producing Indian Water and Economic Development without Injuring Non-Indian Water Users? (University of Colorado School of Law, 1991);
  2. Michael Nelson and Bradley L. Booke, The Winters Doctrine: Seventy Years of Application of Reserved Water Rights to Indian Reservations (Office of Arid Land Studies, 1977);
  3. Jeffrey John Shurts, Indian Reserved Water Rights: The Winters Doctrine in its Social and Legal Context, 1880s-1930s (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000).

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