Energy & Environment

Biden administration announces $580 million toward tribal water rights settlements

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks at a news conference in Yellowstone National Park on Friday, July 8, 2022. (Rachel Leathe/Bozeman Daily Chronicle via AP, File)

The Biden administration will distribute $580 million to 15 Native American tribes toward settling water rights claims, the Interior Department announced Thursday night.

The funds will include $460 million allocated from the bipartisan infrastructure law for settlements reached before November 2021 and another $120 million from the Reclamation Water Settlement Fund, which Congress established in 2009. The 2021 infrastructure law allocated a total of $2.5 billion to address native water rights settlements. The biggest single beneficiary of the funds will be the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in Montana, which are set to receive just under $157 million.

In 1908, the Supreme Court ruled in its Winters v. United States decision that tribes have the right to as much water as necessary for their reservations to be self-sufficient. Congress had enacted 34 settlements involving water rights as of November 2021. Despite the seniority conferred by the so-called Winters doctrine, the burden of determining the details has often been placed on individual stakeholders.

The issue is particularly acute in drought-stricken parts of the western U.S., such as areas along the Colorado River, which is severely overallocated due to the century-old compact that governs its water usage.

“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of Tribal communities. Through this funding, the Interior Department will continue to uphold our trust responsibilities and ensure that Tribal communities receive the water resources they have long been promised,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Senate-confirmed Native American Cabinet secretary, said in a statement. “I am grateful that Tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed with the help of this crucial funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.”

Haaland has emphasized addressing the needs of tribal communities during her time as Interior Secretary, also spearheading an effort to remove slurs for indigenous people from federal place names and to investigate the legacy of federal boarding schools Native American children were removed from their parents and forced to attend.

Tags Biden Biden administration Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Colorado River Deb Haaland Deb Haaland Department of the Interior Kootenai Tribes Montana Native American tribes Reclamation Water Settlement Fund Salish Tribe Supreme Court of the United States Tribal water rights United States Congress Winters v. United States

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