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

No Piping Down for Pipeline

The Great Basin is under attack and may be going down the drains of Las Vegas. It seems the more that happens in Vegas will no longer stay in Vegas as their pipeline dream may become a reality. The city cannot continue to drain Lake Mead anymore because of drought and the Colorado River appropriations are not enough either as they continue the need to moisten their future city development projects by reaching north and using The Great Basin as their next source of water. An approximate three hundred mile pipeline will bring that water to their city.  

On March 22, 2012, Jason King, State Engineer, granted the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) 15 separate permits and in the first stage alone, would allow 61,127 acre-feet of water to be pumped annually but would start “slow” at 38,000 acre-feet of water the first eight years, 12,000 acre-feet added over the next eight years. SNWA water rights will allow them to pump 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year. When converted to gallons, 38,000 acre-feet is 12 billion gallons of ground water per year and 84,000 acre-feet converts to 27 billion gallons of ground water per year.

This would increase the availability of water to Las Vegas by 25%. Why so much? Why not improve their water conservations efforts to reduce water consumption by 25%?

The Great Basin, a little-known environmental treasure, is unique because the water from precipitation seeps through the subsurface and recharges the basins that cover the 200,000 square miles of the Great Basin. Rain and snow is the only way the precious groundwater is replenished. The water flows underground and along the flow creates springs throughout the Great Basin. Spring Valley, Cave Valley, Dry Lake Valley, Snake Valley and Delamar Valley is where SNWA will be tapping into with wells and the water will be discharged into the pipeline headed for Las Vegas. This sudden and unnatural depletion of a water source, which has been around since the ice age, has never been thoroughly studied and the results will most likely be detrimental.

The writing was on the wall in 2005 when Reno lawyer Anne Vohl said, “Groundwater development is not the proper phrase. It should be called ‘Groundwater depletion for purposes of real estate development”. The Great Basin may just turn into “The Great Dust Bowl”. The threat is not only a depletion of a non-renewable water source, well actually the renewal probably would take centuries, but it will threaten and endanger numerous unique inhabitants of The Great Basin that rely on the 300 springs and 120 miles of streams that these permits eventually will ruin.

Southern Nevada Water Authority will not bring out the shovels immediately but they will eventually. They will have to fight a group of people from varied backgrounds, who would never come together otherwise, to fight for their water, their lives, their future and future generations. This group consists of residents of the Great Basin areas, scientists who have studied The Great Basin, attorneys, businesspeople, Republicans, Democrats, Mormons, ranchers, farmers, senior citizens, Native Americans and residents of Las Vegas and Utah. Organizations involved are The National Parks Conservation Association, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Great Basin Water Network, which represents more than 100 groups and individuals, will have their day in court on the appeal.

But will it make a difference? SNWA has the water rights now.

SNWA still has to get Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to grant permission to build the pipeline through federal land. And it is just not a 300-mile underground pipeline but 300 miles of power lines; substations and pump stations along the way; and an underground storage reservoir. The tactics from SNWA is lack of independent third-party reports about actual water needs of Las Vegas. The raw data collected by hydrologists of the U.S. Geological Survey, only lay the groundwork and there are worries about the manipulation of the data in SNWA’s favor. The report of financial costs are based on manipulation of the figures of today’s costs but the actual costs probably will be over their 15 billion estimate. There were no attempts to come up with alternatives to the water issue.

Ironically, the decision to grant these rights occurred on March 22, 2012, International World Water Day, a day where the focus and attention was to promote and advocate for the sustainable management of water resources. It is a day when the focus and attention was on the impacts on current water resources from rapid urban population growth and development, not granting rights to use more water. The theme for this year was “Water for Cities” where government, organizations and individuals from the communities could respond and address the challenges of urban water management.

The Great Basin Network works hard to protect the water sources of the Great Basin. The organizations, businesses and individuals involved have formed a network providing their expertise and resources to stop the pipeline. They also advocate making sure that decisions on all water development proposals in the Great Basin are made in the open from the beginning and without political and developer special interest pressure.

Las Vegas metropolitan area and other large communities in the Great Basin need to focus on implementing effective water conservation programs instead of billion dollar projects. Get involved and sign the “Stop the Water Grab Petition” at the Great Basin Water Network website so we can stand strong in opposing the Bureau Of Land Management to permit Southern Nevada Water Authority to proceed with their depletion of the Great Basin’s water and building a destructive pipeline.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/cplbasilisk/1930350300/

The Sea is Rising: Becoming Resilient Against the Inevitable

OregonCoastOnce again, another report on climate change states sea levels are rising and that coastal flooding inundation is accelerating faster than expected and will become a common occurrence by 2050. Global warming has raised sea level about eight inches since 1880 and scientists expect 20 to 80 more inches this century. Dr. Strauss, of the nonprofit organization, Climate Central, did original research for this sea level project that was funded entirely by foundations. The study makes mid-range sea level projections of 1-8 inches by 2030, and 4-19 inches by 2050, depending upon location across the contiguous 48 states. The report, “Surging Seas”, released on March 14th, 2012, is an elaborate analysis that estimates the proportion of the United States population at risk for flooding which is virtually everyone who lives on any coast of the United States, about 3.7 million people.

This Internet-published report provides a package of information including access where people can search, by their own zip code, to see their own risk of coastal flooding in their area because some states, like Florida, are at high risk. This visualization is a key step in a process for understanding the risk and impact on your community and shows you what you are dealing with so you can participate in building resiliency in your community. Many communities do not have adequate plans in place to control inundation or flooding in their area. Coastal lands are a vast resource. Coastal communities support 81% of the United States population and generate 83% of the United States gross domestic product.

Climate change reports are time-sensitive with the needs for analysis to take place within days or weeks, not years. But that would require more people and government backing. In 2011, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) vied for reorganization to include climate forecasting for businesses and were blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives. The political climate toward climate science is cold and with federal budgets shrinking, funding is tight.

The calculation of flooding in your area is in simple terms, if you live in an area that is within 3.3 feet of the mean high tide level, you live in a zone of 3.7 million people who will be affected by the oceans rise. Now, is the time to act because the window of opportunity is closing and communities have to be prepared.

Ask yourself these questions, “What changes are you seeing and experiencing in your surrounding environments?” and “What do you think the impacts of these changes will be in relation to rising sea levels?” 

If your community provides a social media outlet for information, engage in it to be informed, share your thoughts and share similar concerns about your community. Major communities in this country have been able to build coalitions even though they serve different interests, it is important to contribute innovative ideas and look at the challenges as opportunities to be agents of change because the real threat of inundation in your coastal community can no longer be ignored.

If you would like to start a dialogue in your community to spread the message of inundation by rising sea levels and building resiliency in your community by planning, NOAA Coastal Services Center – Digital Coast provides the Coastal Inundation Toolkit, which was developed to help communities understand and address coastal inundation issues. Even if you do not live on a coastline, you will be affected by climate change.

Photo Credit: Shebola100 Photography