Court upholds water rights

Facebook Twitter
JUNE 20, 2000

On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that the Quechan Nation are entitled to seek additional rights on the Colorado River for the Fort Yuma reservation in Arizona.

The ruling added yet another chapter to the long standing water dispute between the states of Arizona and California, who have battled each other for the precious commodity since 1952.

In their 6-3 ruling, the Court upheld the Winters water rights doctrine. First articulated in 1908, the doctrine states that water rights for tribes are defined upon the creation or setting aside of reservation land and that these rights are to be considered before all others.

The Quechan Nation's rights to additional water are now left up to the recommendations of Frank McGarr, the Special Master for the Court. In 1999, McGarr had ruled the tribe could not seek more water, claiming that a 1983 agreement between the United States and the tribe extinguished those rights.

The tribe appealed that ruling, with the US acting as their trustee. With yesterday's ruling in their favor, the tribe can now present their claim to the Special Master for more water.

At issue are a disputed 25,000 acres of land the tribe ceded to the United States in 1893 in exchange for the construction of irrigation canals. But the canals were never built, leading the US to conclude they had failed to live up to their agreement with the tribe.

In 1983, the tribe were paid $15 million by the government for their broken promise. Arizona and California argued the settlement relinquished the rights of the tribe to seek water for the 25,000 acres.

Under a principle known as "practicably irrigable acreage," the disputed land might require approximately 78,000 acre-feet of water. In the bigger picture, the number represents just about 1 percent of the river's allocated water.

But to the states, the tiny amount appears crucial. California already draws more than its share of the Colorado River, taking 5.2 million acre-feet to its 4.4 million allocation.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying the United States could have asserted the tribe's water rights in earlier stages of ligitation between the states.

Get the Arizona v. California 8:
Syllabus | Opinion | Dissent
States' objections overruled, US as trustee of tribe sustained. Special Master will make recommendations on additional water rights.

Related Story:
Court set to rule on water rights (Enviro 6/19)

Relevant Links:
The Supreme Court of the United States

Only on Indianz.Com:
Indian Law and the Environment - Water rights.

Staff and news wires contributed to this report.