Native American Affairs

Reclamation Programs and Activities to Assist Indian Tribes

Interior's Indian Water Rights Settlement Program - Reclamation Support for Secretary's Program

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

The Department of the Interior (Department) has a formal structure and procedures for its Indian water rights settlement 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 Indian water rights settlement 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.  (109 DM 1, 1.3.E(2).)

The Department has three types of federal teams which work with Indian tribes and other parties on water rights settlement 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 Implementation Team, to support activities necessary to implement the settlement.   When the implementation activities are sufficiently mature, the Implementation Team will be disbanded and further support provided through the programmatic process.  In some cases a Federal Assessment 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 the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of the Solicitor, and 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.

The Bureau of Reclamation provides monetary, personnel, and technical support for the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights settlement program.   Reclamation has a representative on all Federal teams supporting the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights settlement program (excluding temporary vacancies).  In some cases, these Reclamation representatives also serve as team chairpersons.   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 the achieving a settlement for the benefit of the Department as a whole.

The 1990 Criteria and Procedures for the Participation of the Federal Government in Negotiations for the Settlement of Indian Water Rights Settlements provides further information concerning how the Department participates in and evaluates water rights negotiations.

Questions by Reclamation employees about a particular negotiation, implementation or assessment should generally first be directed to the Reclamation team representative.  Click here for a list of the Reclamation representatives serving on Federal teams.   Questions by others about a particular assessment, negotiation, or implementation should generally be directed to the leads for the parties engaged in the settlement activity.  For the Federal teams, this is the Federal team chairperson.   The name of the latter can be obtained by contacting the Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office at 202-208-6997, or the Reclamation team representative.




Last Updated: 1/4/16