Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Indian Water Rights

It is especially heartening, though it may obviously cause some problems, to see rights that have been so long abrogated, again begin to be empowered.

Indian tribes exercising water rights
By Karl Puckett, USA TODAY

GREAT FALLS, Mont. — For decades, ranchers and farmers across the West have tapped into rivers and streams on or near Indian reservations. Now, as drought conditions plague big parts of the region, they're concerned their access to those sources could dry up.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court gave tribes the primary rights to streams on their reservations in 1908, until recently, 19 tribes in the West had not exercised those rights. This year, tribes in Montana, New Mexico, Idaho, Nevada and California are on the verge of securing their claims.

That could result in less water, or higher water prices, for non-Indian agricultural producers and communities downstream, according to Victor Marshall, an attorney who represents irrigators in New Mexico's San Juan Valley.

Marshall acknowledges that Indian tribes have more water coming to them. But he argues the amounts they are seeking are more than they can realistically use on the reservation.

Rivers, streams redirected

David Gover, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo., argues that the diversion of Indian waters by non-Indians was "a direct attack on their resources."

"It's one of the most important resources we have available for the development of our economies," Gover said.

Because rainfall is so meager in much of the West, huge distribution systems made up of dams, reservoirs and canals, both privately and publicly constructed, redirect rivers and streams. This allows residents miles away to have water for drinking, fire protection, growing crops and raising livestock.