For once, it seems that the West’s Indian tribes stand to win big. Armed with a century-old legal doctrine which holds that Indians’ water rights supersede those of practically everyone else, tribes are claiming their place at the top of the Western water rights hierarchy.
issue’s feature story, Daniel Kraker writes about the Pima
and Maricopa Indians’ quest to win rights to a massive chunk
of water — almost as much as the city of Phoenix uses.
It’s a dramatic change from the disastrous federal Indian
policies that broke the backs of the tribes. White Americans kicked
Indians off their land, squeezed them onto reservations — and
then plundered coal, timber, and oil and gas out from under the
Indians’ feet. Now, the tribes finally have the chance to
take something back.
But Indians are getting their water
late in the game. Western farms and cities have grown at breakneck
speed, becoming ever more dependent on the region’s finite
amount of water. Some observers worry that, now that Indians are
finally playing their trump card, a massive shift of water to the
tribes will upend the established order in the West.
reality, however, the Indians’ crusade for water is a game of
compromise. Claiming water — and getting it — are two
very different things, and rather than face the roulette wheel of
the courts, tribes are increasingly willing to negotiate with
non-Indians to resolve their claims. Everyone is facing a cold
certainty: There’s only so much water to go around, and
therefore it’s in everyone’s best interest to negotiate
Each Indian water deal comes with a raft of
concessions about how much water the tribe can take, and what it
can do with the water. Some might argue that, once again,
we’re giving the Indians only part of what is rightfully
theirs: We call it Indian water, but we maintain control over it.
One thing is clear, however: Such deals put real water into the
hands of Indians. And while it’s often said that water flows
uphill to money, there’s another, simpler truth: Water makes
money. For tribes like the Pima and Maricopa — whose annual
per capita income is $6,000 — that fact may offer the one
real path up.