37-Year Lawsuit Settles Issue Of Tribal Water Rights

Sep 19, 2014

One of 7 new fish ladders on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Earlier this month in a Worland courthouse, a judge signed a final decree that brought to end what’s probably the longest-running lawsuit in Wyoming history. After 37 years, the lawsuit decided who exactly owns the water rights in and around the Wind River Indian Reservation. Those involved in the suit are now looking to the future.

Northern Arapaho Tribal Liaison Gary Collins loads people onto a giant bus. He’s taking them on a tour of the reservation’s irrigation project that crisscrosses the entire Wind River Valley. It’s only early September but, true to form, it starts to blizzard. Through the falling snow, hay fields make a patchwork of green farmland.   

“These folks just got their hay cut and off the ground,” Collins says over a loud speaker. “I’ve got some hay down behind me about a half a mile that’s being snowed on right now, but what are you going to do?”

And you can’t bale wet hay. It’s just one of the many challenges of ranching in Wyoming. But you also can’t grow hay without a lot of water. That was the thinking way back in the 1860’s when the U.S. government built ditches to irrigate the newly established Wind River Indian Reservation. The idea was to turn the reservation’s two nomadic tribes into farmers. Most of the irrigation project was built in the 1920’s.But the federal government never properly funded the project’s construction. In fact, it’s still only 80 percent complete. And so when droughts came along in the 70’s, trouble brewed. 

Manager Nancy McCann has been working on what’s called the Bighorn Stream Adjudication lawsuit since it started.

“In 1977, the tribes actually did write a letter to the city of Riverton,” she says, “saying you have started to drill these wells, that’s actually on the reservation. You have to come to us.” 

Meaning that the tribes had to give permission to citizens of Riverton to drill new water wells on the reservation. At that time the State Engineer was George Christopulos.

“What he said was, no, you have to come to us,” McCann says. “We’re the state engineer. We administer the water rights. And before we knew it we had the General Adjudication Statute and then the case was filed.” 

"We know that water is life. And we use water in our thinking every day, our sweat lodges, our Sun Dance. And growing up, I had to carry water to my house for my family. I respected water early on in my life because when you carry water you know its value."

Remember, this was 37 years ago.  No computers…no GPS. Half the reason the lawsuit took so long was because it was a logistical nightmare.

“Initially, when the suit kicked off,” says State Engineer Pat Tyrrell, “the state sent out 20,000 registered letters because every water right holder in the basin needed to be aware of what was going on. So keeping track of the mail at the beginning was a massive job.”

It took two state supreme-court cases just to figure out whether non-tribal heirs living on tribal lands should receive water rights. Along the way there have been other problems too, like poor communication between the tribes and state water officials. And former Eastern Shoshone Tribal Liaison Sara Robinson says government agencies are dragging their feet to rehabilitate the incomplete irrigation system. She says it’s losing almost half its flow.

Non-tribal rancher Fred Tammany owns land inside the reservation boundary. He says some people aren’t getting what they deserve. 

“We’ve had people down at the end—Sara Robinson was one of them—and paid for water and never got it.  And that hurts, that hurts. When you got a two or three-thousand dollar water bill and now you got to go out and buy five or eight thousand dollars-worth of hay to feed your cows that you could have been growing yourself.”

So Tammany started an organization bringing together tribal and non-tribal water users on the reservation. This month, they’ll install three water delivery measurement systems on the ditches. And they’ve got commitments from the tribes and Bureau of Indian Affairs to match $500,000 toward work on the system. But Sara Robinson estimates it will take $100 million to finish the irrigation system. Where that much money will come from, she’s not sure.

Everybody climbs off the bus and walks down a gravel road to the canal where a metal structure has been installed. A wide conveyor belt turns slowly. Gary Collins says it’s a fish ladder to keep spawning fish from swimming into the ditches. The tribes have installed seven of them in the last five years. Each cost half a million dollars. Collins says it was worth it because it’s not just the economics of water that matter.

“We know that water is life,” Collins says. “And we use water in our thinking every day, our sweat lodges, our Sun Dance. And growing up, I had to carry water to my house for my family. I respected water early on in my life because when you carry water you know its value.” 

Even with the decree signed, many wonder if it’ll be another 37 years of hard work and disagreement before the irrigation system is complete. But Collins says a more efficient system means more water can flow back into the Big and Little Wind Rivers. And that means a healthier river for recreation and fisheries on the Wind River Indian Reservation.