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

Power Plant Cooling Systems Threaten Aquatic Life

Environmental groups are up in arms over what they say are weak standards proposed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the impact of power plants on fish and other aquatic life.  According to organizations like the Sierra Club, standards put forward by the federal agency earlier this spring and up for public comment through July 19th will do little to protect fish from a major threat to their survival: cooling systems that take in water from streams and lakes across the US, in the process pulverizing any aquatic animals swept up in the current.  Environmental groups are urging the EPA to adopt stronger standards that will help protect wildlife.

Every day US power plants suck up an astonishing 200 billion gallons of water to use in their cooling systems.  That means the power utility industry uses more water than any other industrial source in the country.  The biggest offenders are coal and nuclear plants, which require large amounts of water to cool their interiors and which are often old enough to have escaped having to comply with comparatively recent water conservation standards.  These older plants are responsible for most of the power plant industry’s water consumption, and for most of the fish deaths. 

The law already requires younger power plants to minimize environmental damage with a closed cooling system, which uses an on-site water cooling tower instead of sucking up water from nearby lakes or rivers.  The Sierra Club argues all power plants should be required to upgrade to closed cooling systems or other designs that achieve the same goals for conservation.  Otherwise the industry will continue to kill billions of fish and other aquatic animals. 

Large fish are drawn into power plant cooling systems and killed when they are smashed against intake screens within.  Smaller species and fish larvae fit through the screens, but are then swept into power plant turbines where they are literally chopped to bits.  After years of preventable fish deaths, a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resource Defense Council and the aquatic habitats conservation group Riverkeeper forced the EPA to re-examine power plant standards and propose new rules for existing plants.  However the agency has been hesitant to require utilities to make changes, as the coal and nuclear industries argue upgrading to closed systems would be too costly.

A new rule proposed this spring by the EPA would do little if anything to protect fish at most power plants.  The new standard largely leaves it up to individual state agencies to determine how fish deaths will be prevented, rather than creating a uniform national standard.  State agencies often lack the resources or the commitment to implement new policies, and in many cases aren’t likely to take action unless forced to do so by the EPA.  Most of these agencies are unlikely to require that power plants upgrade to closed cooling systems—and that’s good news for coal and nuclear companies that don’t want to pay for the retrofits. 

“Under intense pressure from powerful industry interests,” says the Sierra Club, “the EPA opted not to require meaningful technology requirements that would protect ecosystems. Instead the EPA’s proposal offers little-to-no improvement in the technologies required to protect fish and wildlife.”

The Sierra Club is urging its supporters and wildlife enthusiasts across the country to comment on the EPA’s plan and ask the federal agency to take a stronger stance.  Public comments can by submitted online, and will be accepted until July 19th.  Public comment periods are required by law for any new regulation proposed by the EPA, and are a way of gauging support or opposition to proposed environmental standards. 

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/mulad/4652503603/

Arctic Council Meets, Discusses Opportunities and Challenges From Receding Ice

On Thursday, leaders from seven nations will convene in Greenland to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by the receding ice and snow in the Arctic region.  

The council includes the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark, as well as representatives of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic.  

“There are very core interests that are at stake in the Arctic, but it is an opportunity to find new patterns of cooperation,” said James Steinberg, the U.S. Secretary Deputy of State, citing the race for oil, minerals, fishing, and shipping opportunities being explored in the Arctic.

There has been evidence for climate change in the Arctic, as temperatures are at the highest in the previous 2,000 years and are increasing faster than anywhere else in the world.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may hold around 25 percent of the world’s untapped oil and natural gas reserves, catching the attention of major companies like Exxon, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell Plc and others.

Global shipping is also adapting to the changing Arctic, as ships can now navigate shorter, faster and more cost efficient routes through the melted ice.  

Environmental activists are pushing for more aggressive action on international standards for oil and gas development as well as fishing quotas in the Arctic.  

“There’s a short window of opportunity to get out in front of it and protect important and vulnerable ecosystems before industries get entrenched,” said Lisa Speer, director of the international ocean’s program of the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council).  

Photo Credit: blogs.state.gov/images/Dipnote/behind_the_scenes/2011_0317_arctic_ice_m.jpg

Costa Rica Creates Giant Marine Reserve

Cocos Island-sharks-protected area-seamounts-fishingMarch 7, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Last week the Costa Rican government announced formation of one of the biggest marine protected areas in the eastern Pacific Ocean—a move that will help protect habitat for sharks, tuna, sea turtles, and other tropical marine species.  The new Seamounts Marine Management Area surrounds Cocos Island, a tiny tropical island more than three hundred miles off the western shore of Costa Rica.  The area is home to thirty forms of marine life found only in the waters off Costa Rica, and supports one of the largest concentrations of big sharks found anywhere in the world.

“This new protected area gives us a better chance to ensure that these species will thrive for future generations to marvel at for many decades to come,” said Dr. Bryan Wallace of Conservation International, one of the groups that pushed to create the new reserve.

The Seamounts Marine Management Area covers close to a million hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres), and dramatically expands the boundaries of an existing protected area in the waters of Cocos Island National Park.  The protected area gets its name from a cluster of seamounts, or underwater mountains, located within its boundaries.  Seamounts are among the least-explored but most vulnerable ecosystems in the oceans, making protection of the ones near Cocos Island particularly important.  The tops of many seamounts are home to a vast diversity of slow-growing invertebrates such as corals and sea lilies. 

Some seamount species are unique to a particular cluster of seamounts, having evolved in isolation over millions of years.  Unfortunately many of these ecosystems have been severely damaged by ocean trawling, a fishing practice that involves scraping the ocean floor to catch bottom-dwelling fish.  Fishing trawls break, bury, and otherwise damage corals and other life forms that live on seamounts, devastating marine habitats that will take centuries to recover.  Luckily seamounts near Cocos Island have never been trawled so far, and the new protected area should help keep them safe for the future.

“Creating a protected seamount area sets an important precedent,” said Marco Quesada from Conservation International.  “Seamounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support rich feeding grounds for sea life on the surface. Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna.”

In addition to preserving important seamounts, the new protected area excludes certain types of fishing within its boundaries.  At the same time long-line fishing will still be allowed in parts of the protected area—a decision that has already drawn criticism from environmentalists.  Conservation groups say all types of fishing should be banned in the protected area, providing a fully protected sanctuary where large fish populations can recover.

Even with the continued practice of long-line fishing, establishment of the Seamounts Marine Management Area is a big leap forward for threatened sea life.  The protected area is home to large but vulnerable fish species like the white-tipped reef shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, whale shark, and tuna.  It also provides habitat for the critically endangered leatherback turtle.  Sharks and other large fish are concentrated in the area near Cocos Island partly because the cluster of now-protected seamounts provides habitat for the smaller fish they feed on. 

The Marine Seamounts Management Area is bigger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and is the second largest protected area in the eastern tropical region of the Pacific Ocean.  If protections for the area can be successfully implemented by the Costa Rican government, it could serve as a model for other countries looking to protect their own marine resources.

Photo credit: Barry Peters