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.
In this 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.
In 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 a compromise.
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.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.