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Quechan win Supreme Court victory over Colorado River water rights

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FORT YUMA RESERVATION, Calif. - For the Quechan Tribe, the United States Supreme Court has reaffirmed what they already knew - the land and water from the nearby Colorado river is theirs.

"This is just a tremendous victory," says Quechan President Mike Jackson. "This is the first time that we have the federal government on our side."

The High Court voted 6-3 on June 19 to allow the Quechan Tribe to prove it owns 25,000 acres of land that would entitle it to 1 percent of the Colorado River outflow.

"We hold that the claims of the United States and the tribe (Quechan) to increased water rights for the disputed boundary lands of the Fort Yuma Reservation are not precluded by the consent judgment," wrote Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her majority opinion. She was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and Stephen Breyer.

Justices Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor were in dissent.

The tribe must own the land to receive the water rights. This is a particularly contentious issue in what is overall the most arid region of the United States. The Colorado River is the sole water source for an area that includes parts of southern California, Arizona and Nevada. One percent is a significant amount in such a region and could potentially put the tribe into a strong bargaining position for thirsty urban water districts.

The federal government paid the Quechan Tribe $15 million in 1983. Quechan say this was compensation for historical encroachment on their lands and not a sale of the land itself. The Quechan claim the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation was created in 1893 and has been in its possession ever since.

Some of these encroachments have included building a canal through tribal lands in the late 19th century and removal of gravel for use by white settlers.

The Quechan Tribe has claims on about 78,000 acre feet of water coming from the lower Colorado River basin. To give some perspective, a story posted on cnn.com says that, in accordance to a 1922 agreement, the states of California, Arizona and Nevada receive a combined 7.5 million acre-feet from the lower Colorado basin. Although seemingly small, 1 percent would supply 78,000 families with water for a year.

As the population of the region begins to outgrow the potential for local water sources, every acre-foot is viewed as a potential resource. California, with rights to nearly 4.4 million acre feet, has been taking a larger and larger share to meet demands of an increasing population. This prompted the dispute with Arizona which has been in the Supreme Court in one form or another since 1952. The Quechan became involved as a third party in the case.

Calls to both the California and Arizona attorneys general offices regarding the decision were not returned.

The White House Press Office refused comment because it is not policy to comment on pending litigation.

The federal government, specifically the Clinton administration in this case, also acted as a third party, siding with Quechan regarding ownership of the land and water rights.

With regard to the land ownership issue, President Jackson said his tribe has proper documentation to show that Quechan indeed owns the land. He cites a document from 1974 where the solicitor of the United States acknowledges the land belongs to the tribe.

As for the water rights as a potential source of revenue for Quechan, attorney Mason Morisette, who argued the case for Quechan, says the tribe is still going through legal hoops to claim the right to use the water for economic sources.

"The Secretary of the Interior says that Quechan doesn't have the right to sell the water. I don't see any legal conflict myself but we're working on it," Morisette says.

Selling water isn't the only potential economic development that could benefit the tribe. Jackson points out that much tribal agricultural land is in need of water.

As for now Morisette says he will advise the tribal council to act as if the water is theirs.

"We'll just see if anyone complains. I'm pretty sure someone will especially since we're dealing with such a scarce resource as water."

Sources at Quechan think that the most likely groups to complain are states that receive their water from the Colorado.

Jackson feels that this is a potentially precedent-setting case for not only Colorado River tribes but for tribes across the country.

"This is overdue. This land and the water belong to us. We are the Indigenous people and this is ours. We regard water as sacred. As far as we're concerned we've never given up our right to it. Now at least it seems that the federal government agrees."