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NESEPLEM - The Colville Confederated Tribes are providing information to members during membership meetings about the tribe’s petition to quantify and protect its water rights.

“We want the membership to be fully informed about the purpose, timelines and potential results of our submittal with the Washington Department of Ecology,” said Colville Business Council Chairman Rodney Cawston.

The petition, filed in August, was a topic of discussion at the tribe’s general membership meeting in Inchelium on Oct. 4. Cawston said it’s important to provide additional information at district meetings for all interested tribal members.

The petition was submitted to the state Department of Ecology by the tribe’s water rights attorneys, Alice Walker and Del Laverdure. Both are experts in tribal water law and water rights litigation, said tribal officials.

They were retained by the tribe after an extensive search for the most experienced and successful lawyers in the field. Since then Walker and Laverdure have led a tribal water rights team that includes staff from the tribe’s natural rresources department, environmental trust program and Office of the Reservation Attorney.

Cawston the council approved the petition to protect the tribe’s rights to the waters of the Columbia and Okanogan rivers, plus all waters on the reservation and off-reservation waters to which the tribes have rights.

“Indian tribes have unique rights to water that are reserved by the tribe when the tribe’s reservation is established,” Cawston said. “The amount of water reserved is the amount needed to fulfill the purposes of the reservation for both the present and the future. The water right is reserved as of the date of the creation of the reservation, and since time immemorial for the tribes’ traditional water uses, and cannot be lost.”

Cawston said the tribe’s water rights were reserved in 1872 when the reservation was established, making them senior to many other rights in the same waters. These rights are intended to fulfill the “homeland purpose” of the Colville Indian Reservation, including irrigation, stock water, domestic, commercial, industrial and municipal uses, fish and wildlife, cultural uses and other uses necessary to provide a permanent homeland for the Colville people.

“Despite the fact that the Colville tribes undoubtedly has significant water rights with senior priority (both an early date of 1872 and the traditional uses that are time immemorial), the amount or quantity have never been determined,” he said. “The petition submitted to the Department of Ecology is a request to begin what is called a ‘general stream adjudication’ to permanently affirm our water rights.”

Cawston said submitting the petition to the Department of Ecology was necessary to protect the tribe’s senior rights and to prevent existing water resources from being over-allocated to other water users. The rights include those for individual Indian lands held in trust and for individual Indian fee lands.

“We know that it will literally take decades to sort out the rights to the waters of the Columbia and Okanogan,” Cawston said. “But we cannot wait any longer to assure that the Colville tribes has a reliable, long-term water supply that can be used for our people, for our domestic, commercial, industrial and municipal needs, for farming and stock, to maintain minimum instream flows for fish and wildlife habitat, for cultural uses, and any other uses determined by the tribes as necessary to serve our permanent homeland.”

Cawston said a relevant example of a general stream adjudication in the region is known as the “Acquavella litigation,” started in 1977 and was intended to quantify the Yakama tribe’s reserved water rights. In May 2019 a unifying decree was entered in the Acquavella litigation to settle all water claims to waters of the Yakima River.

“This is a long and complex process and we want to be sure our membership is provided with accurate information about it,” Cawston said. “District meeting presentations about this important matter will be held in the near future.”

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