Tribes Hold The Senior Water Right

January 14, 2003

With the 2003 State Legislature now in session, water is again a key environmental issue being considered by the state lawmakers.

Another thing they must consider is that the tribes hold the senior water right in this state. The senior right is not held by the public utility districts. It’s not held by the cities, and it’s not held by corporations or the counties. It’s held by the tribal governments—along with the state and federal governments. These are the governments that actually own the water, on behalf of their respective citizens. That’s the law, and yet the state has consistently ignored the tribes in its legislative and management practices and policies.

We’ve got a message for the state. Ignoring the tribes will not make them go away. We stand, united, in our effort to assure that tribal rights are respected, and that the water needed to sustain fish, wildlife and other resources of nature are protected for future generations.

The tribes have made every possible effort over the years to work with the state in co-managing the water resource in a way that will provide protection for these resources. A decade ago, for example, we sat down with the state and representatives of its various communities and drew out an agreement on Comprehensive Water Resources Planning. It was a good agreement. A pilot project on the Dungeness/Quilcene River System then went on to prove that cooperative water management does work. It works well. But the agreement was shelved by the state as soon as corporate participants chose to walk from the table, feeling they could cut a better deal by manipulating the legislature, state agencies and the Governor’s Office with high paid lobbyists and political favors. Since then, our voices have fallen on deaf ears, and the state has been remiss in its duty to protect the public trust, and work with the tribes to provide adequate natural resource protection.

We’ve got another message for the state. The tribes stand united in continuing to assert that the precious water resource must be protected to sustain the flows needed by fish and wildlife. We must protect the natural environment because it sustains everyone who lives here. The tribes can no longer be ignored, and we will not permit water giveaways to continue to jeopardize the natural heritage of this region.

Tribes from throughout the state participated in two major water summits in 2002 and, among other achievements, drafted a set of water-related principles we all support. These have been distributed to the legislature, the Governor’s office and appropriate agencies, and we demand that any water-related legislation proposed by the Governor or passed by the legislature fit within the scope of these principles.

The draft principles range from a statement pointing out that the United States Constitution specifically says all treaties are “the supreme law of the land” to one which says storage of water cannot occur unless agreed upon by the tribes. (Copies of the principles are available on the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission website).

The resolution of the tribes is summed up in a preamble statement:

“We, the native peoples of the mountains, rivers and ocean, who depend on the gifts of the Creator, are called to the task of protecting and restoring our water resources to sustain our tribal life, culture, and economies. We collectively pledge to use our sovereign governmental powers and management expertise to protect, restore, and enhance these resources for future generations.”

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer, (360)438-1180