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.


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians (“Agua Caliente”) holds impliedly reserved water rights in the Coachella Valley in Southern California.  President Ulysses S. Grant established the Agua Caliente’s reservation by Executive Order in 1876.  Today, water in the Coachella Valley is scarce, and the Agua Caliente seeks to satisfy the tribe’s needs by asserting that the tribe’s reserved water rights include the right to groundwater resources.  However, controlling law is unclear on the issue of whether tribal reserved water rights extend to groundwater.  State supreme courts are split on the issue.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (“Ninth Circuit”) will be the first federal court of appeals in forty years to address the issue.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit will consider whether when the government created Agua Caliente’s reservation the government impliedly reserved rights to groundwater in the context of California’s correlative water rights framework.

Background on Federal Reserved Rights to Water

Federal law provides a framework for Native American tribes’ possession of water rights.  These tribal water rights impliedly arise from the establishment of the reservation.  The reservation grant thus provides a property right to the land and an implied right to sufficient water to fulfill the purposes of the reservation.  Winters v. United States was the seminal case that established the implied reservation doctrine.  The Supreme Court held in Winters that the Fort Belknap tribes gained the right to use unappropriated water from the Milk River for the reservation needs.

Tribal reserved rights vest at the creation of the reservation and hold priority over those of future appropriators.  Tribes do not abandon the reserved rights by nonuse.  Further, most federal reservations predate, and therefore hold priority over, state water law rights.  Prior court decisions further explain the application of Winters to groundwater.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Litigation

The Agua Caliente court found persuasive that every court, with the exception of the Wyoming Supreme Court in a 1989 decision, that has addressed the issue of whether Winters extends to groundwater held in the affirmative.  Many courts declined to directly address the issue, but acknowledged the possibility that Winters could encompass groundwater.  The cases that have previously recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater are not abundant, but they followed one of two lines of reasoning.  Some courts relied on the hydrologic interrelationship between groundwater and surface water to find that Winters applies to both.  Other courts took a logical approach and reasoned that groundwater should be available to fulfill a water reservation along with surface water.

In In re Gila River System & Source, the Arizona Supreme Court was the first court to expressly hold that the federal reserved rights doctrine extended to groundwater.  The Gila court’s 1999 opinion acknowledged that the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water is such that groundwater pumped from a distance may significantly diminish the surface flow.  Nonetheless, Gila deemed the distinction between groundwater and surface water as insignificant for purposes of applying the reserved rights doctrine.  Even though the Gila court expressly extended the reserved rights doctrine to groundwater, it restricted tribal rights to groundwater.  Gila limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater to “where other waters were inadequate to accomplish the purpose of the reservation.”

In 2002, the Montana Supreme Court recognized a tribal federal reserved right to groundwater in Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults.  In Salish, the court prohibited the state agency from issuing water use permits until the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes quantified their water rights.  Like Gila, the court noted that the groundwater must be necessary to fulfill the purposes of reservation, but refrained from determining whether the groundwater at issue met this standard.  Instead, the court ruled that the tribes’ federally reserved water rights included groundwater.  The court’s holding was rooted in logic.  The court failed to find a reason to exclude groundwater from the tribes’ reserved water rights, so it refrained from limiting the tribes’ rights in such a way.

The hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water formed the basis of the Ninth Circuit’s extension of Winters to groundwater in United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co.  In that case involving the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, the court reasoned that the reciprocal hydraulic relationship between groundwater and surface water is such that allocations of groundwater would predictably affect the surface water in a nearby flowing river.  Further, the court interpreted the decree that reserved water in the Truckee River included a right to groundwater if the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe needed groundwater to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The court additionally held that because the tribe’s decreed rights were the two most senior water rights in the Truckee River and those rights extended to groundwater, other users’ allocations of groundwater may not adversely affect the tribe’s right to the surface water.

In New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, a New Mexico district court extended Winters to groundwater for hydrological reasons.  This case involved the Pueblo Indians’ prior right to water in a Rio Grande tributary for domestic and irrigation uses.  The decree gave the tribe water rights appurtenant to its irrigated acreage.  The court held that water rights appurtenant to the tribe’s land included groundwater because groundwater and surface water were physically interrelated, and therefore both were appurtenant to the tribe’s land.

Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater Recognized by Settlement

Indian Tribes have entered into settlement agreements to resolve disputes over federally reserved rights to groundwater.  Many of these settlement agreements expressly recognized tribal federally reserved rights to groundwater.

For example, a 2007 settlement agreement between the United States, the Lummi Indian Nation, and the State of Washington recognized the tribe’s right to groundwater on the Lummi Reservation in Northwest Washington.  The agreement resolved a water rights case in which the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington held that Winters rights on the Lummi Reservation extend to groundwater.  The agreement gave the Lummi the right to groundwater on the Lummi Peninsula.  Specifically, the agreement allocated the right to use 120 acre-feet per year of groundwater to the State of Washington, Department of Ecology, and the remainder of the groundwater to the Lummi.  The Lummi gained the exclusive right to regulate the use of groundwater underlying the reservation, and the agreement prohibited groundwater withdrawal unless the Lummi had authorized the withdrawal.

In addition to court settlements, state and federal settlement acts have resolved disputes over groundwater rights.  Many of these settlement acts recognize a tribal reserved right to groundwater.  One such federal settlement act is the Snake River Water Rights Act of 2004.  This act resolved water rights disputes between the Nez Perce Tribe, the State of Idaho, and private water rights holders.  The settlement act clarified water rights in the Snake River Basin in Idaho, and it allocated to the tribe the right to groundwater.  Focusing on the hydrological connection between groundwater and surface water, the settlement quantified the tribe’s right to surface water and stated that the right extends to the groundwater source beneath.

Limitations on Use of Tribal Reserved Rights to Groundwater

Several courts that recognized tribal reserved rights to groundwater placed limitations on the rights.  Federal reservation grants originally derived from the idea that the water is impliedly reserved to the extent that the water is necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation.  The Ninth Circuit has broadly defined the purpose of the reservation as it relates to water rights in order to provide a home for native peoples.  Courts that analyzed groundwater in the context of Winters considered whether groundwater was necessary to fulfill the reservation’s purpose.  The reservation grant itself thus set an initial, and broad, limitation on groundwater rights.  Courts have limited tribal reserved rights to groundwater based on quantity, pumping maximum, purposes of groundwater usage, sales outside the reservation, and necessity.

The Nevada Supreme Court limited the quantity of groundwater allocations on the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation in Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci.  The court established the limitation on groundwater as the amount of water in the Orr Ditch Decree adjudication.  The court held that while the decree impliedly gave the Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe a right to groundwater, the decree restricted that right to the tribe’s personal yield of water as set forth in the decree.  Because the specified amount of water in the decree represented the tribe’s full adjudication, the tribe had no right to groundwater in excess of that amount.

In a 1990 settlement agreement between Idaho and the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, the tribes discussed the right to water under, arising on, flowing across, adjacent to, or otherwise appurtenant to the reservation.  The agreement limited the tribes’ respective rights in terms of necessity: the agreement restricted the tribes’ use of groundwater to instances where their diverted water from other sources was insufficient.  If the one of the tribes diverted less than the agreed-upon quantity, the tribe had the exclusive right to divert groundwater.

A settlement contract between the Jicarilla Apache Tribe and the United States limited groundwater rights with regard to the effect on the surface water sources.  The contract addressed water rights in the Navajo River, Navajo Reservoir, and San Juan-Chama Project.  Under the contract, the tribe had the express right to adjudicate water rights from either the groundwater or surface water.  The tribe gained the right to lease its water off-reservation, but the contract prohibited the tribe from withdrawing groundwater if doing so would adversely impact the surface water source.  As an additional measure relating to the protection of surface water sources, the contract required the tribe to implement a conservation program.

Previous Cases and Potential Guidance to Examining Agua Caliente Defendants’ Arguments

The Agua Caliente court distinguished the water at issue from other cases recognizing tribal reserved right to groundwater.  Many prior cases focused on the hydrological connection between surface water and groundwater to extend Winters to groundwater.  However, Agua Caliente did not involve hydrologically connected groundwater and surface water.  The defendants in Agua Caliente argued that the tribe did not need groundwater to fulfill its reservation’s purpose, so Winters did not apply.  Various courts have previously considered this argument, but each court implemented a somewhat different solution.  Nonetheless, reference to the history and trends of previous cases may help define and clarify the scope of the reserved rights doctrine in relation to the Agua Caliente groundwater.

Daphne Hamilton, J.D., University of Denver College of Law, 2016

Image: Cahuilla Tewanet Vista Point, Santa Rosa / San Jacinto Mountains, California.  Flickr user Tony Webster, Creative Commons.

 

Sources:

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District, No. EDCV 13-883-JGB, 2015 WL 1600065 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 20, 2015).

Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963).

Colville Confederated Tribes v. Walton, 647 F.2d 42 (9th Cir. 1981).

Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes v. Stults, 59 P.3d 1093 (Mont. 2002).

In re Gila River Sys. & Source, 989 P.2d 739 (Ariz. 1999).

In re Snake River Basin Water System, 764 P.2d 78, 81 (Idaho 1988), agreement ratified by Snake River Water Rights Act of 204, Pub. L. No. 108-447, 118 Stat. 2809.

New Mexico ex rel. Reynolds v. Aamodt, 618 F.Supp. 993, 1010 (D.N.M. 1985).

Pyramid Lake Palute Tribe of Indians v. Ricci, 245 P.3d 1145 (Nev. 2010).

United States v. Orr Water Ditch Co, 600 F.3d 1152 (9th. Cir. 2010).

United States ex rel. Lummi Indian Nation v. Washington, Dep’t of Ecology, (W.D. Wash. Nov. 20, 2007) (approving settlement agreement).

Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564 (1908).

Settlement Agreement: Contract between the US and the Jicarilla Apache Tribe (Dec. 8, 1992).

Royster, Judith V., 47 Idaho L. Rev. 255, Conjunctive Management of Reservation Water Resources: Legal Issues Facing Indian Tribes (2011).

The 1990 Fort Hall Indian Water Rights Agreement (Jul. 10, 1990).

 


Editor’s Note: This piece is part of a six-part collaborative series between the University of Denver Water Law Review and the Stanford Environmental Law Journal that examines the upcoming Ninth Circuit case, Aqua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians v. Coachella Valley Water District and the development of the doctrine of federal reserved rights to water.

Introduction

Many in the United States take water for granted.  It is a commodity that typically comes out of a faucet clean and at a low cost.  However, not everyone in the United States has this amenity.  In rural areas, residents commonly rely on wells drawing out water that is not pure for consumption.  Many Native Americans, residing in their sovereign nations within the United States, lack access to clean water for drinking, bathing, cooking, and other every day uses.  There is a question of how these Native Americans can ensure their water is of the quality other United States citizens take for granted.

It seems that only drastic events make water a discussion at the dinner table; events like the Gold King Mine spill, where three million gallons of metal-polluted water spilled forth from an abandoned mine turning the picturesque clear water of the Animas River yellow-orange.[1]  Both the Southern Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation are directly downstream of the polluted Animas River in southern Colorado and across the border in New Mexico.  The Animas is a tributary of the San Juan River, which flows through over 200 miles of the Navajo Nation.[2]  These tribes rely on the river to grow food, for drinking water, and for their modern municipal and industrial needs.  How are Native American tribes to ensure the reserved water they have a right to use is of the quality they expect and need to sustain themselves?  This blog discusses the notion that some inherent right to quality may arise from the Winters doctrine.  It also considers other means for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a useable quality.

Water Quality in Winters Doctrine

Under Winters, the United States Supreme Court held that Congress set aside land for the Native American tribes to live on, and, along with the land, Congress impliedly reserved water.[3]  Congress’ implied reservation of water for the land, and any other reserved federal land, was based on the amount of water necessary to fulfill the reservation’s need when it was established.[4]  Presently, courts acknowledge both reserved Native American water for growing crops[5] and water for traditional tribal uses, such as hunting and fishing.[6]

Some legal scholars believe that Winters may apply to the quality of water as well.[7]  In the Winters opinion, Justice McKenna wrote, “in furthering and advancing the civilization and improvement of the Indians. . . it is essential and necessary that all of the waters of the river flow down the channel uninterruptedly and undiminished in quantity and undeteriorated in quality,”[8] allowing for the tribes to argue an inherent right to both water quantity and water quality.

The Hopi Tribe in northeastern Arizona recently made an argument for their right to water quality. [9]  The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“Court”) heard the case.[10]  In Hopi Tribe the Court held that the United States did not have a fiduciary duty, under Winters, to ensure the quality of Native Americans’ water supply.[11]  The Hopi Tribe brought the action seeking monetary relief because of high arsenic concentrations in their water supplies.[12]  Arsenic is a naturally occurring contaminant found in rock and soils.[13]  The Hopi Tribe wanted funds to improve their infrastructure and ability to provide clean water to the reservation.[14]  The Hopi Tribe argued that the United States had an affirmative duty to ensure water quality on the reservation.[15]  They argued this duty existed based on the Winters doctrine and the Act of 1958,[16] holding in trust Hopi lands as described in 1882.[17]

The Court denied the Hopi Tribe’s argument for two reasons.  First, the Hopi Tribe’s argument that the United States had a fiduciary duty to act did not persuade the Court.[18]  No language in the Act of 1958, or the Executive Order of 1882, gave weight to this argument.[19]  Second, the Court took issue with why the contaminant was in the water.[20]  The Hopi Tribe could not drink their water because of arsenic contamination, but this contamination is natural.[21]  Natural erosion, as opposed to third-party actions, resulted in the unsafe amount of arsenic in the reservation water.[22]  The Court acknowledged that in a situation where an upstream user affects the water quality, the United States might have a duty to act.[23]  The Court held, however, that the United States had no fiduciary responsibility to improve the water quality when the contamination occurred naturally.[24]

The Court did not find a connection between water quality and Winters doctrine in Hopi Tribe, but nevertheless there is still an argument for an inferred connection between the Winters doctrine and water quality standards.  The Court’s decision in Hopi Tribe left room for Native Americans to argue for a right to water quality under Winters.  The Court’s dicta in Hopi Tribe seems to assert that the United States does have a duty to act when a third-party diminishes the water quality, as opposed to harmful, naturally occurring minerals.  The United States District Court for the District of Arizona (“District Court”) found such a duty in United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation District.[25]  The District Court identified two reasons why the Apache Tribe’s water was tainted.[26]  First, upstream irrigators diverted the entire flow of the stream.[27]  When the irrigators returned the water to the stream it carried with it salts from the irrigated lands.[28]  Second, upstream water users pumped groundwater in excess, particularly when flows in the Gila River were low.[29]  Groundwater has higher salinity than surface water, so the water coming back into the Gila River at low flow had a higher salinity than what naturally occurs.[30]  The upstream users, through these two acts, raised water salinity to an unusable level for the Apache Tribe’s salt-sensitive crops.  On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s decision that 1) the landowners’ diverted water was strictly for agricultural irrigation use; 2) the district court’s interpretation of the Globe Equity consent decree of June 29, 1935, Article VIII in all of its parts; and 3) that the “lower valley diverters in Gila Crossing District were not entitled to priority call as against upstream diverters.”[31]

The Gila Valley case contrasts the Hopi Tribe case.  When interpreted together, it is likely that upstream users are liable for the polluted water that a tribe uses downstream.  Further, the United States has a duty to ensure water quality only when it has a fiduciary duty to the tribe.  However, when natural causes lead to water pollution, the United States has no duty to provide the tribe with clean water, even when a fiduciary duty exists.

Another Means of Ensuring Clean Water

To be sure, no federal court has stated a clear rule regarding an implied right to water quality under Winters.  However, Native American tribes have other means of ensuring their water is of the quality necessary for agricultural and other purposes.  The Clean Water Act allows for the Environmental Protection Agency to treat tribes as states.[32]  A Native American tribe, to be treated as a state, has to show that it has a governing body with governmental powers, that it will perform functions related “to the management and protection of water resources,” and that the tribe is capable of such authority.[33]  The tribes that qualify gain the benefit of receiving assistance from the United States to restore water quality where contaminated.[34]

Once the United States recognizes the Native American tribe as a state under the Clean Water Act, the tribe is able to set its own standards on water quality.[35]  The tribe’s water quality standards must be reasonable and enforceable against upstream water users.[36]  This power gives federally recognized Native American tribes the ability to set their own enforceable water quality standards, and provides the federal government with assistance in ensuring water quality improvements in the United States.[37]

There are several barriers that prevent tribes from taking advantage of this statute.  One barrier is acquiring the necessary capital to sustain a governing body that can handle the responsibilities that come with governmental powers.  Further, tribes bring projects under this statute that are likely costly, even with federal assistance.  The statute imposts an additional barrier in that only federally recognized tribes may exercise governmental authority over water quality.  State governments and the Federal government do not always recognize the same tribes.[38]  Therefore, while tribes may seek federal assistance to ensure water quality on their reservations, state-imposed hurdles prevent many tribes from being able to request that assistance.

Conclusion

Despite what some legal scholars believed as far back as twenty years ago, the courts have yet to decide a case that addresses whether Winters applies to a right to water quality.[39]  Professor Judith Royster has suggested that if the courts find Native American tribes have a right to water quality it will likely be closely tied to the quantity of water.[40]  While Winters remains open regarding water quality, there are other avenues for federally recognized tribes to ensure their water is of a necessary quality under the Clean Water Act.  Those means, however, are not without obstacles.[41]

W. James Tilton, J.D., University of Denver School of Law, 2016

Image: Coahuilla Indian well at Martinez, Palm Springs, ca.1903.  Flickr user Ashley Van Haeften, Creative Commons.

[1]  Gold King Mine Could have Been Prevented, (Nov. 15, 2015), http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2015/ 11/15/gold-king-mine-could-have-been-prevented-162427.

[2]  Id.

[3]  Winters v. U.S., 207 U.S. 564, 576–77 (1907).

[4]  U.S. v. New Mexico, 438 U.S. 696, 701 (1978).

[5]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564, at 569–70, 576.

[6]  U.S. v. Adair, 723 F.2d 1394, 1408–09 (9th. Cir. 1983).

[7]  See generally Cynthia Brougher, Indian Reserved Water Rights Under the Winters Doctrine: An Overview, Congressional Research Service (2011), http://nationalaglawcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/assets/crs/ RL32198.pdf; Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/; Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994) http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[8]  Winters, 207 U.S. 564 at 567.

[9]   Hopi Tribe v. U.S., 782 F.3d 662 (Fed. Cir. 2015).

[10]  Id.

[11]  Id. at 668–69.

[12]  Id. at 665.

[13]  Id.

[14]  Id. at 665–66.

[15]  Id. at 669.

[16]  An Act to Direct the Secretary of the Army to Convey Certain Property Located at Boston Neck, Narragansett, Washington County, R.I., to the State of Rhode Island, Pub. L. No. 85-548, 72 Stat. 403 (1958), https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/STATUTE-72/STATUTE-72-Pg403-2/content-detail.html.

[17]  Executive Order for Moqui (Hopi) Reservation, (Dec. 16, 1882), Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties. Vol. I, Laws (Compiled to December 1, 1902), 805, Compiled and edited by Charles J. Kappler. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904, http://digital.library.okstate.edu /kappler/vol1/html_files/ARI0801.html.

[18]  Hopi Tribe, 782 F.3d at 668–69.

[19]  Id. at 669.

[20]  Id.

[21]  Id.

[22]  Id. at 665–66.

[23]  Id. at 669.

[24]  Id.

[25]  920 F.Supp 1444 (D. Ariz. 1996).

[26]  Id. at 1450.

[27]  Id. at 1451.

[28]  Id.

[29]  Id. at 1450.

[30]  Id.

[31]  Id.; see also United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 117 F.3d 425, 426 (9th. Cir. 1997) (affirming the United States district court’s reasoning and findings).

[32]  33 U.S.C.A. § 1377 (June 2014).

[33]  Id. at (e).

[34]  See §§ 1377 and 1251(g).

[35]  Mark E. Chandler, A Link Between Water Quality and Water Rights: Native American Control Over Water Quality, 30 Tulsa L. J. 105, 112 (1994), http://digitalcommons.law.utulsa.edu/tlr/vol30/iss1/3.

[36]  Id. at 118.

[37]  See 33 U.S.C.A. § 1383(c).

[38]  See Federal and State Recognized Tribes, National Conference of State Legislatures, (2016) http://www.ncsl.org/research/state-tribal-institute/list-of-federal-and-state-recognized-tribes.aspx.

[39]  Chandler, supra note 35.

[40]  Judith V. Royster, Water Quality and the Winters Doctrine, 107 Water Resources Update 50 (1997), http://opensiuc.lib.siu.edu/jcwre/vol107 /iss1/10/.

[41]  Id.