American Indian Water Rights and the Limits of Law

Lloyd Burton

Gold is no longer the most precious treasure of the American West. Water is.

In the arid western half of the United States, the unquenchable thirsts of industry, agriculture, and growing urban areas have nearly drained the region dry. There is no longer enough water to satisfy the conflicting claims of the many groups fighting over it.

“A comprehensive introduction to an important problem in environmental and social justice—and also an excellent case study of the law's systemic failure to fulfill its promises when ecological and moral values are at stake.”

Journal of American History

“A cogent, tightly written work. It is timely. It is understandable. And it is foreboding.”

Great Plains Quarterly
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Among the claimants are American Indian tribes. They hold water rights dating back to treaty obligations of the U.S. government—rights that often conflict with state water-rights allocation doctrines. Currently they are locked in legal combat with non-Indian adversaries in about fifty major water-rights disputes throughout the western United States. The amounts of water involved are huge, as are the potential economic benefits for the victors.

In this thorough, timely study, Lloyd Burton traces the history of American Indian water rights. Focusing on the years following the 1908 Supreme Court decision in Winters v. United States, he dissects the irreconcilable conflict of interest within the Interior Department (between the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs) that dates from that decision.

But Burton is not content simply to record and analyze history. He also examines methods of managing disputes in contemporary cases and offers original policy recommendations that include establishing an Indian Water Rights Commission to help with the paradoxical task now facing the federal government—restoring to the tribes the water resources it earlier helped give away.

About the Author

Lloyd Burton is director of the Master of Public Administration program concentration in environmental affairs in the Graduate School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado at Denver. He has been a legislative liaison in the Washington, D.C., offices of Morris Udall and has served as a consultant to the American Indian Resources Institute in Oakland, California, providing inservice training to tribal attorneys and natural resource managers.

Additional Titles in the Development of Western Resources Series