Native American Water Rights

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Water Rights has been an issue for Native Americans in the past and still is today. It can at times become an issue for state and federal governments. In the American West gold is no longer the most precious resource, water is. In the dry western climates there is an unquenchable thirst in agriculture, industries, and growing urban areas. The lack of water has not been enough to satisfy the conflicts and claims that arise from government entities fighting over water. Among those that fight to claim water is the American Indian tribes. Native Americans have held water rights dating back to the Treaty of Obligations. It has constantly conflicted with the state and federal water rights system. There are currently fifty major water right law disputes throughout the western United States. All of these fifty disputes involve huge quantities of water, which in turn could have huge economic benefits tot he victor.

When it comes to determining water rights there are two forms of defining them. On the eastern side of the United States they use a system called riparian rights. This system came down from English law, which states that all who own land along a water source have the right to use it. This system is great for areas with a large amount of rainfall. In the western states with low annual rainfall this method becomes a problem for those down stream. As a result water rights are controlled by the state government. Their system is called, “Prior appropriation which can be best summed up in the phrase "first in time, first in right."1 Along with this issue there are other groups who have claims to the water rights. They include that states, the federal government, and the American Indians. Because of this competition for water conflicts, repercussions and even law suits arise.

The Native American policy for water rights is based upon a “1908 U.S. Supreme Court Winters decision. The ruling, known as the Winters Doctrine, continues to guide Indian...