Recently, a court in India has made a dramatic decision to give rivers legal rights in an attempt to curb pollution. While India’s Supreme Court overturned the ruling as legally unsustainable in July, this continues a global trend of recognizing the rights of water sources as opposed to just those that use the water. Potentially, this trend could come stateside, offering a unique way for Native American tribes to protect waters they consider sacred.

 

The Rights of Rivers in India

The high court in Uttarakhand, India, where the Ganges River originates, recently granted the Ganga and Yamuna rivers and their tributaries rights as “living entities.” This gives the river and its tributaries, regarded as holy by millions of Hindus, the same rights as people, making the harming the river equivalent to harming a person. The ruling also appoints three officials to represent rivers as legal guardians. In theory, these guardians may then sue on behalf of the rivers for damages since their title gives them legal standing,

This is the court’s most recent attempt to address the pollution problem affecting rivers that supply water for forty percent of India’s population. Critics, including the courts, have called national government efforts ineffective at slowing the estimated two billion liters of waste entering the river each day. Economic development and population growth are primary culprits for this waste.

To support its decision, the Uttarakhand court cited a recent New Zealand law that also grants a river the same legal rights as people. The Whanganui iwi Tribe worked with the government to recognize the Whanganui River and grant it protections as an ancestor. Similar to the court ordained decision in India, this law also appoints legal guardians charged with protecting the river. The river has the same protections from harm as a Whanganui iwi tribal member.

In July 2017, the Supreme Court of India reversed the ruling at the urging of the local state government in Uttarakhand. The Court cited complications in implementing the law across jurisdictions, since the Ganges runs through much of India. And it noted the ruling would allow actions against the river, such as murder or wrongful death claims for people killed in floods. Despite this setback, the ruling remains an novel solution to a severe problem.

 

Rights of Water Sources in the U.S.

The idea of granting legal rights to inanimate objects, specifically natural resources, is not alien to the United States. There are advantages to granting a water source specific rights, discussed at length by Cristopher Stone, Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, in a 1972 journal article. Stone argued giving an entity like a river judicial standing, or a right to sue for a perceived harm, would allow for greater justice for ecological harms. For example, if a polluter dumps in a river, the only current avenue for recovery is for those non-river entities harmed by the pollution to sue. If pollution doesn’t significantly bother a downstream user, or that user is a polluter itself, that individual may not ever bring a suit and the harm would go unchecked. A river could sue for the entirety of harms suffered.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Douglas agreed with Stone, in a dissenting opinion also authored in 1972, Sierra Club v. Morton.  His dissent cited public concern for nature and ecology, and called for those with a meaningful relation to water to be able to speak for it. He used the analogy of ships and corporations, both of which have legal personality that grants them rights in litigation. While stirring, this view has failed to gain traction in the following decades.

A likely cause for this is that it could be politically unpopular. The Blaze, a conservative U.S. news source, pushed back against the New Zealand law. Ironically, it attacks the law for one of the same reasons Stone argued natural resources should have standing. The Blaze article is concerned with giving rights to non-living entities, when New Zealand does not recognize rights for unborn children because it does not ban abortion. As Stone himself recognized, there is difficulty in getting Americans to accept an inanimate object has standing. As an example, he cites the backlash from corporate personhood, a debate that still goes on. And at a more technical level, water as a commercial commodity with multitudes of competing interests and disagreement over what constitutes “public interest” and “beneficial use” in the American West’s established prior appropriation system complicates matters.

 

Recognizing Sacred Sources: Difficulties and Consequences

However, there is one avenue where an attempt to give a water source standing could arise, mirroring New Zealand’s legislative approach. America could potentially work to recognize water sources as having rights as a sacred part of Native American history and culture. University of Montana Profess of Law Michelle Bryan recently explored this possibility and its challenges in a Natural Resources Journal article.

Indigenous groups across the world treat waters as sacred in several ways. Like the Maori, water sources can have spiritual significance and consider the sources as an ancestral member of the tribe. Alternatively, the waters can have ceremonial value, or locational significance to a tribe, such as for a creation story. Unfortunately, there is little legal protection for sacred water on a global scale. Tribes have few alternatives to protect what they have not legally been appropriated. These sources can be “vulnerable to diversion, consumption, contamination, and other impacts that damage the very essence of what makes them sacred.”

Recognizing sacred water rights challenges the traditional prior appropriation schematic factors of: beneficial use, diversion, seniority, abandonment, and public interest. First, sacred water currently lies outside accepted ideas of beneficial use. Second, since sacred waters’ value exists typically in place as part of the source, it is difficult to show diversion. Third, these rights would likely be subject to senior, preexisting rights. Fourth, where use is difficult to show, rights are subject to abandonment, or the idea of “use it or lose it.” Finally, many states require water uses promote public interest, which is vague, but seems to prefer economic benefit over social utility.

States sometimes have statutes that define in-stream uses like fishing rights to avoid diversion and abandonment by non-use. And several federal doctrines offer some relief for tribes. The Winters Doctrine, for example, reserves water rights for tribes that vest upon creation of the reservation, in amounts “sufficient to fulfill the purposes of the reservation.” This water reservation is independent of both beneficial use and loss by non-use. The Winters decision allows relating back water use to creation of the reservation, which can give tribes a higher seniority than water rights holders who perfected their rights after reservation creation. Unfortunately for tribes, fixing these rights can be limited to Practically Irrigable Acreage, the minimum water the tribe needs to sustain itself agriculturally.

Success stories are rare. For example, members of several Native tribes were unable to show sufficient harm to their religious practices to prevent construction of a solar energy facility that would cut off their access to the Salt Song Trails in the Southwestern United States. Professor Bryan notes the difficulties coupled with a lack of state and federal support means the stars must align to protect a water source as sacred to a tribe. And other rights holders understandably get nervous when their rights could disappear or reprioritized.

Bryan suggests negotiating treaties with tribes, like the New Zealand legislature did creating their law, that recognize sacred waters as a right inherent to the river itself and not with people. This would be a resurgence of the arguments put forward by Stone and Justice Douglas. However, negotiations would be a long process. It is also possible to protect water within our current system. Recognizing sacred waters as a legitimate public interest and beneficial use are key steps in this direction.

Bryan may underestimate the usefulness of the Winters Doctrine. She notes examples of tribes using it are becoming rarer, but perhaps this is because they haven’t fully explored its usefulness. However, at least one state has recognized an avenue to use the Winters Doctrine to preserve sacred water sources.

A 2001 Arizona Supreme Court decision involving the Gila River (In re Gen. Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River Sys. & Source) recognized that the act of measuring a tribe’s minimal need by the Practicably Irrigable Acreage standard is antiquated. Instead, the court suggested several factors to consider in deciding what a tribe needs, notably including a tribe’s history and culture. If their culture considered a water source sacred, they could reserve the minimum amount needed to preserve that source, potentially a significant amount. This would allow relating the right back to creation of the reservation, jumping other appropriators with junior rights.

If you close your eyes, you can almost hear other appropriators crying “foul!” Significantly appropriating a source this way would likely be a tough pill for courts to swallow, as well. But the threat of such a possibility could bring parties to the negotiating table. Tribes could have more bargaining power to be a part of the water allocation process, representing the tribe or river.

In Arizona, Rod Lewis, a Native American attorney involved in the Gila River adjudication has gained a seat on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board. He will have a voice for the tribe in state water allocation. From such a position, tribes could influence state water boards to further protect sacred waters, possibly influencing a formal recognition of sacred water as a beneficial use or as part of the public interest.

Recognizing sacred rights could have had implications for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath Lake Oahe in South Dakota. Perhaps if the tribes could have sued not as themselves, but on behalf of the lake, they could have showed a greater potential for damage. The Tribes may have had a better shot at getting an injunction halting the pipeline if they could argue standing on behalf of this waterway.

In sum, giving water sources legal rights has moved from a hypothetical in law journals and dissenting court opinions to real statutory and common law around the globe. Perhaps it’s time America considered weaving it into its own system.

Michael Larrick

Image: “Indian at Sacred Lake” by Eanger Irving Couse, Wikimedia Commons.

 

Sources

Michael Safi, Ganges and Yamuna rivers granted same legal rights as human beings, The Guardian (Mar. 21, 2017, 7:44 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/21/ganges-and-yamuna-rivers-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-beings?CMP=share_btn_link.

Dr. Afshan, Save The Ganges River, Scientific India (Jul. 24, 2014), http://www.scind.org/36/Social-Issues/save-the-ganges-river.html.

Eleanor Ainge Roy, New Zealand river granted same legal rights as human being, The Guardian (Mar. 16, 2017, 12:05 AM), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/16/new-zealand-river-granted-same-legal-rights-as-human-being.

Cristopher D. Stone, Should Trees Have Standing? Toward Legal Rights For Natural Objects, 45 S. Calif. L. Rev. 450 (1972), available at https://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic498371.files/Stone.Trees_Standing.pdf.

Sierra Club v. Morton, 405 U.S. 727, 741 (1972), available at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/405/727.html.

Justin Haskins, Crazy environmentalism: New Zealand law gives river human rights – but not unborn babies, Blaze (Mar. 18, 2017, 10:55 AM), http://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/03/18/crazy-environmentalism-new-zealand-law-gives-river-human-rights-but-not-unborn-babies/.

Michelle Bryan, Valuing Sacred Tribal Waters Within Prior Appropriation, 57 Nat. Res. J. 139 (2017), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2803691.

In re Gen. Adjudication of All Rights to Use Water in the Gila River Sys. & Source, 35 P.3d 68 (Ariz. 2001).

Jack Newsham, Feds Blast Tribal Claim To Holy Site At Solar Power Plant, Law360 (May 9, 2016, 9:37 PM), https://www.law360.com/articles/794209/feds-blast-tribal-claim-to-holy-site-at-solar-power-plant

Dianna M. Náñez, Gila River member becomes 1st Native American to have a vote on Arizona water board, The Arizona Republic (Apr. 3, 2017, 6:02 AM), http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-water/2017/04/03/gila-river-member-becomes-1st-native-american-have-vote-arizona-water-board/99826278/.

Jeff Baenen, Company: Oil in pipeline under Missouri River reservoir, Assoc. Press (Mar. 27, 2017, 11:57 PM), http://bigstory.ap.org/article/9f3a519d5a2c4d9090c51b7bd8deab25/company-oil-pipeline-under-missouri-river-reservoir.