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Government

Interior Department gives tribes more autonomy over water rules

If selected and confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden's interior secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, seen here on Capitol Hill in September, would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.
If selected and confirmed as President-elect Joe Biden's interior secretary, New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, seen here on Capitol Hill in September, would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history.

News Brief

Water is life out West, and now tribes will have more control over water rules on their lands.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently removed some federal oversight from tribal water rules – rules that govern how their water is used on tribal land.

A memorandum from 1975 had required certain federal approvals for tribes to change their water codes, even after their water rights were certified. But now that’s no longer the case.

“If we are to truly support Tribal self-determination, we cannot be afraid to review and correct actions of the past that were designed to create obstacles for Tribal nations,” Secretary Haaland said in a press release. “Today’s action underscores our efforts to move forward in this new era.”

Mark Squillace is a law professor at the University of Colorado. He says this change has been a long time coming.

“I think it’s a really important step in recognizing tribal autonomy, particularly here over a really important resource, their water resource,” he said.

Some tribes are still fighting to have their water rights quantified or recognized. But Squillace says once rights are recognized, tribes should be able to manage the water how they see fit.

He added that the change could lead to disagreements between tribes, states and other water users, though he doesn’t suspect that will be widespread or disruptive.

Some tribes have federal oversight of water rules written into their own constitutions, but with this change, tribes could also change their constitutions.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.