Native American Affairs Program

Indian Water Rights Settlements Program

Providing Support to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Water Rights Settlements Program

Featured Resources:
Indian Water Rights Settlements Program
Questions/Contact Information

Indian water rights are vested property rights for which the United States (U.S.) has a trust responsibility, with the U.S. holding legal title to such water in trust for the benefit of Indians.  In 1989, former President Bush set forth policy in which any disputes regarding Indian water rights should be resolved through negotiated settlement rather than litigation.  Each Administration since then has upheld this policy.

The U.S. Department of the Interior (Department) has formal structures and procedures for its Indian Water Rights Settlements Program.  Overall leadership is by the Counselor to the Secretary.  The Director of the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office is responsible for leading, coordinating, and managing the program, in consultation with the Office of the Solicitor.  The Director reports to the Counselor to the Secretary assigned to such matters, unless otherwise provided by the Secretary—see section 1.3 E(2) in:

  • "Secretary of the Interior," Departmental Manual, Part 109, Chapter 1, January 16, 2009 (Adobe PDF).
The Department has three types of Federal teams which work with Indian tribes and other parties on Indian Water Rights Settlements activities.  A Federal Negotiations Team works with the parties as they endeavor to reach a negotiated settlement.  Upon settlement, the Department usually creates a Federal Implementations Team to support activities necessary to implement the settlement.  When the implementation activities are sufficiently mature, the Implementations Team will be disbanded and further support is provided through the programmatic process.  In some cases, a Federal Assessments Team will be created to determine the appropriate time for designating a Federal Negotiations Team.

Each Federal team includes a chairman (designated by the Counselor to the Secretary) who represents the Secretary in the settlement activities.  Most Federal teams are comprised of representatives from Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of the Solicitor, and the U.S. Department of Justice.  In some cases, representatives of other bureaus, such as the Bureau of Land Management, may also be on a team.  Team representatives are nominated by their respective bureaus, with the actual appointments made by the Department.

Reclamation provides monetary, personnel, and technical support for the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Settlements Program. Reclamation has a representative on all Federal teams supporting the program (excluding temporary vacancies) and, in some cases, these representatives also serve as the team chairman.  Team representatives identify issues that are of interest to the agencies they represent, communicate those issues to their agencies, bring agency interests or concerns to the attention of the team, and may coordinate technical studies and evaluations to further the settlement process.  In carrying out these duties, team representatives function both as advocates for their agencies, as well as representatives of the Secretary charged with achieving a settlement for the benefit of the Department as a whole.

The Department adopted criteria and procedures to establish the basis for negotiations and settlements of claims concerning Indian water resources, which provide further information concerning how the Department participates in and evaluates water rights negotiations:
  • "Criteria and Procedures for the Participation of the Federal Government in Negotiations for the Settlement of Indian Water Rights Claims [Settlements];" Federal Register Notice, Volume 55, Number 48, March 12, 1990 (Adobe PDF)

Questions by Reclamation employees about a particular negotiation, implementation, or assessment should first be directed to the Reclamation team representative.

Questions by others should generally be directed to the leads for the parties engaged in the settlement activity.  For the Federal teams, this is the Federal team chairman.  For the name of the respective Federal team chairman, contact the Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office, or the Reclamation team representative.        

Questions by: Contact: At:
Reclamation Employees
Reclamation Team Representative
Secretary's Indian Water Rights Office
(Adobe PDF)


Last Updated: 12/3/20