David Ganje: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe takes a stand for water rights

David Ganje

Tribal water rights – The Road to securing water
By David Ganje
For the Native Sun News Today

“Water is perhaps the most valuable tribal resource remaining and is one of the most significant potential forces of change. The potential size of tribal water rights should not be underestimated.” - Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission

A Canadian Judge – in making a legal decision -- recently recited two important principals of British law, both of which are found in US law. The Judge stated there are two legal maxims, one at common law and the other at the law of equity: First, the law comes to the aid of those who are vigilant, not those who sleep on their rights. Second the legal principle of equity comes to the aid of those who are vigilant, not those who sleep on their rights.

Upper Great Plains tribes today must be vigilant in obtaining reserved but yet undetermined water rights. This involves two choices. Litigation or negotiation. In this article I argue that the Upper Great Plains tribes should undertake first, active, public and aggressive negotiation, and then if unsuccessful, litigation to recover water rights.

But for the current water rights negotiation by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, reserve language found in the successful Mni Wiconi Rural Water Supply Project and language found in some tribal water codes, Upper Great Plains tribes have not taken an official position with the BIA claiming reserved water rights. This silence is a mistake.

My argument is this: treaties and case law have given Upper Great Plains tribes a property right, which is a right to use and access groundwater and surface water. However Upper Great Plains tribes have not fully sought and claimed that right. Both groundwater and surface water reserved rights must be championed by Upper Great Plains tribes.

While Standing Rock has taken the first step in opening negotiations with the State of South Dakota and North Dakota on the matter of water rights, the US Department of Interior has yet failed to assign a representative from its Indian water rights division to participate in these negotiations.

Standing Rock is taking the right action; it is putting on the table the reservation’s water claims and doing it in a serious forum. Standing Rock has not by these negotiations abrogated its claims, and will preserve the tribe’s water rights throughout the negotiations without prejudice to its right to refuse any proposed terms or accept any proposed settlement terms.

Having recognized this strategically proper first step by the tribe it is important to disclose the failure of the Department of Interior to participate in the negotiations. The DOI’s failure to participate in the ongoing talks is wrong and contradicts that department’s statutory duties regarding Indian tribes in the US. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who has publicly stated the administration’s commitment to resolving water rights, should immediately direct a staff person to actively participate in these water talks.

Read the rest of the story on the Native Sun News Today website: Tribal water rights – The Road to securing water

(David L. Ganje practices law in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law in South Dakota and North Dakota. His website is Lexenergy.net)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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