Reserved Water Rights for Federal and Indian Reservations

A Growing Controversy in Need of Resolution Gao ID: CED-78-176 November 16, 1978

Although the United States as a whole has an abundant water supply, the geographical distribution and availability of its water resources often does not match needs and demands. Federal and Indian reservations encompass substantial land in the western United States, and federal reservations are a substantial source of water resources in the Western States. Except for some litigated cases, however, the amount of water reserved for the reservations, from what sources, and for what purposes has not been determined.

Reservation-related water resources are often the main source of water supply for irrigation, communities, industries, and other uses off the reservations. The lack of information on the amount of reserved water rights makes it virtually impossible for potential water users and state administrators to determine what, if any, waters are available for appropriation under state law and what water uses may be superseded by the exercise of reserved rights. Two controversial issues concern: determining water quantities reserved for a reservation's future needs, and compensating state water rights holders for losses resulting from the exercise of reserved rights. Other questions involve: the definition, scope, and quantification of reserved rights; the appropriate judicial forum for resolving disputes; and the respective authority in federal and state governments to administer the reserved rights.


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