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King v. Clair

Supreme Court of Nevada, En Banc

March 29, 2018

RODNEY ST. CLAIR, Respondent.

          Appeal from a district court order resolving a petition for judicial review in a water rights matter. Sixth Judicial District Court, Humboldt County; Steven R. Kosach, Senior Judge.

          Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, and Justina A. Caviglia, Deputy Attorney General, Carson City, for Appellant.

          Taggart & Taggart, Ltd., and Paul G. Taggart and Rachel L. Wise, Carson City, for Respondent.


          STIGLICH, J.

         This case concerns respondent Rodney St. Clair's entitlement to water rights connected to a property that he purchased in 2013. Upon finding an abandoned well on the property, St. Clair applied to the State Engineer for a permit to temporarily change the point of diversion of the underground water source from that well to another location on his property. To support that application, St. Clair submitted a Proof of Appropriation, in which he claimed that a prior owner of the property had established a vested right to the underground water source. In ruling on St. Clair's application for a temporary permit, the State Engineer found that a prior owner had indeed established a right to appropriate underground water, but a subsequent owner abandoned that right through years of nonuse. Upon St. Clair's petition for judicial review, the district court overruled the State Engineer's decision, finding insufficient evidence that any owner of the property intended to abandon the property's water right. We affirm because nonuse evidence alone was insufficient to support a finding of an intent to abandon.


         In 2013, Rodney St. Clair purchased real property in Humboldt County, Nevada. Upon finding remnants of a well casing on the property, St. Clair filed two documents with the State Engineer. The first was a Proof of Appropriation, in which St. Clair claimed a pre-1939 vested right to appropriate underground water. The second was an application for a permit to temporarily change the place of diversion of that water.

         To support his Proof of Appropriation, St. Clair submitted documents establishing that the property in question was first acquired by George Crossley in 1924 pursuant to the Homestead Act of 1862. Several months later, Crossley deeded the land, with all appurtenances, to Albert H. Trathen. The Trathen family maintained ownership over the property until 2013, when St. Clair bought it. All property taxes were paid from 1924 to the present.

         St. Clair's documentation also included Crossley's 1924 land patent application, in which Crossley indicated that a drilled well existed on the property. St. Clair submitted pictures of remnants of the well existing on the property in 2013. By that time, the well had become inoperable, and St. Clair admitted in his application that the land had not been irrigated recently and that he did not know when it was last irrigated.

         In ruling on St. Clair's application, the State Engineer found sufficient evidence that Crossley had appropriated underground water and put it to beneficial use prior to March 25, 1939, thus vesting a pre-statutory right to appropriate underground water pursuant to NRS 534.100.[1]However, the State Engineer also found that the water was not used continuously from 1924 to the present and that there was "no evidence pointing to a lack of prior owners' intent to abandon the water right." Based on those findings, the State Engineer concluded that the vested water right had been abandoned. The State Engineer therefore denied St. Clair's application seeking a temporary change of place of diversion on the basis that no appropriated water was available.

         St. Clair petitioned for judicial review. While the district court accepted the State Engineer's findings that the well was inoperable and that water had not been put to beneficial use for some time, the court reasoned "that non-use of the water is not enough to constitute abandonment" of a water right. The district court noted that the property contained no improvements inconsistent with irrigation and the evidence indicated that all taxes and assessments on the property were paid from Crossley's time up until the present. Thus, the district court overruled the State Engineer's abandonment finding as being unsupported by substantial evidence and ordered the State Engineer to grant St. Clair's application for a permit to change the place of diversion. The State Engineer appeals.


         When this court reviews a district court's order reversing an agency's decision, we apply the same standard of review that the lower court applied: we determine whether the agency's decision was arbitrary or capricious. See Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Indians v. Washoe Cty,, 112 Nev. 743, 751, 918 P.2d 697, 702 (1996). According to that standard, factual findings of the State Engineer should only be overturned if they are not supported by substantial evidence. See id. Substantial evidence is "that which a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion." Backer v. Office of the State Eng'r, 122 Nev. 1110, 1121, 146 P.3d 793, 800 (2006) (internal quotation marks omitted). We review purely legal questions de novo. See In re Nev. State Eng'r Ruling No. 5823, 128 Nev. 232, 238-39, 277 P.3d 449, 453 (2012).

         The State Engineer misapplied Nevada law in finding that nonuse alone established a prior ...

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