What’s the Big Deal about U.S. Tribal Water Rights?

The big deal goes all the way back to the late 1700s with the arrival of the settlers and to the 1800s when the Indigenous people of this country were forced onto reservations and then were exploited again when non-Indians diverted their water sources so the federal government recognized reserved water rights of Native American Tribes in the Winters vs. United States Supreme Court case in 1908. It gave all Tribe’s immemorial water rights for their reservations. For Tribe’s in the West, this doctrine gave water rights through use of the Prior Appropriation system.  This system means that the water right belongs to the first used, which would be the Tribes, and the Tribes are first in the right to the water, again, meaning their right is senior to any other rights including state water rights and with no restrictions, whatsoever.

Tribes have been fighting for their water rights forever, fighting the settlers for water, and for the past century, fighting in the courts. The federal government, as a trustee, failed to protect these water rights through their vague interpretations of determining the historic need of water, the lands, other resources, the economic status, the future development and the projected populations in relation to water but have left these water rights open to negotiation and litigation from state and local  governments.

The water rights are inherent to the survival of the many tribes. The state governments have already taken enough water to build their cities, power plants and agricultural societies of which the Tribes surrounding have never clearly benefited from and the states always want more. The states negotiation and litigation tactics have never been in favor of the Tribe’s interest and for the federal government to allow this to happen because of their fragmented policy that left it open to broad interpretation, broken promises, untruths and competing interests, is a disgrace to the Tribes and threatens their future existence.

As the first environmental stewards of this continent, indigenous peoples have an acute awareness of the effects of climate change, especially in the West where most of the land is arid and dry. Water is a precious resource to be guarded and sustained, an essential part of keeping a balance with nature and the source of life itself.

Interestingly enough, indigenous peoples provide relevant observations, knowledge and practices that relate to climate change. Most international indigenous people and people of marginalized populations live in vulnerable environments, such as small islands, high altitude zones and deserts like the Native American Tribes of the West and warrant more attention because climate change will affect them sooner and probably more severely.  Indigenous peoples are more attentive to changes in their environment.

The international workshop on Indigenous Peoples, Marginalized Populations and Climate Change by the United Nations University, held in July 2011, in Mexico City, realized that observations and assessments by indigenous peoples and marginalized populations provide valuable local knowledge that can be used for adaptation and natural resource management in response to climate change and add to the broader-scale scientific research.

Geologist Margaret Hiza Redsteer, of the US Geological Survey, has been integrating the shared observations and knowledge of the Navajo elders to enrich the weather monitoring data. The Navajo people have been living in drought conditions since 1994. Geologist Redsteer learned that soil moisture conditions are drier because before the soil would stay moist through the spring until the summer monsoons and today, if you dig deep there is no moisture. Shallow-rooted plants are suffering, there are no longer cranes migrating because the lakes with marshes no longer exist, and the people cannot have as much livestock because there is no water.

The Navajo and Hopi are currently in a battle to save their inherent water rights. SB.2109 is a bill to approve the settlement of water rights claims of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, to authorize construction of municipal water projects relating to the water rights claims, to resolve litigation against the United States concerning Colorado River operations affecting the States of California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Opponents believe this bill contains empty promises and favors non-Indian interests such as the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, and Peabody Western Coal Company. The ancestors of this area have occupied the Colorado Plateau, the Colorado River, and Little Colorado River basins since time immemorial and have superior aboriginal, ancestral, and federal reserved rights to the surface and subsurface waters in the river systems that can never be given up.

Please sign the petition to stop SB.2109 – via change.org.



Photo Credit: azwater.gov/azdwr/StatewidePlanning/WaterAtlas/default.htm

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