Friday, September 19, 2014

Symposium on the Wind River Indian Reservation brings people together

Gathered in the Wind River Hotel and Casino’s large entertainment room, legal practitioners and scholars, water managers, students and other interested parties convened for the Big Horn General Stream Adjudication Symposium—a landmark event in the world of western water law. The symposium, which took place September 10-12 with approximately 200 attendees, marked the conclusion of a 37-year adjudication process that determined water rights in the Wind-Big Horn River basin located in northwestern Wyoming and encompassing portions of Fremont, Hot Springs, Washakie, Big Horn, Park, Natrona, and Johnson Counties.

The adjudication—a legal proceeding in which a court determines the amount, priority and nature of water rights held by parties along a watercourse—began in 1977, and a final decree was entered in it on September 5th, 2014. The corresponding symposium was planned to bring involved parties together to reflect on the adjudication process and to look to the future.

“The essential goal was to organize an event that would educate attendees from diverse backgrounds about the Big Horn general stream adjudication, and to promote dialogue about the challenging issues posed by the adjudication as well as the future of water management in the basin now that the final decree has been entered,” said Professor Jason Robison of the College of Law at the University of Wyoming, and an organizer for the event.

This adjudication was particularly complex because of the enormous number of parties and legal claims involved. The final decree needed to consider Indian reserved rights, federal reserved rights and the individual water rights of hundreds of irrigators who depend on the stream system. The Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes, who reside on the Wind River Reservation adjacent to the headwaters of the basin, have their own tribal water code, which also came into play during the adjudication.

The symposium hosted a variety of speakers and panelists, including federal, state and tribal officials who participated in the adjudication over the last 37 years. During the two days of talks and presentations, panelists provided insight into the complexities of the proceeding, regional perspectives on other adjudications in the American West, and  thoughts on the future of water management in the basin after entry of the final decree.

“It is profound to have all these thinkers here... The common thread is water and its associated issues, including adjudication,” said Northern Arapaho Tribal Liaison, Gary Collins, about the Symposium.

On Thursday of the Symposium, Mr. Collins, along with Baptiste Weed and Jim Pogue of the Tribal Water Engineer’s Office, led a narrated field trip through the Ray Canal system. The system, which was put in place to irrigate 11,000 acres of tribal land, has been a source of debate between tribal members and federal agency officials. According to Collins, the system requires approximately $90 million of improvements.

Symposium participants brave snow and rain to tour the Ray Canal system.

Yet even with problems identified and expressed by concerned parties, many saw this event as a success and a necessary step forward to enhance dialogue.

“Some of the discussion today, if not most of it the last two days, should have occurred years ago,” said Collins. “This conference was very appropriate, very informative. It helped set some of the framework for the future.”

Robison agreed. “I am hopeful that the event set a precedent for future collaboration among the diverse stakeholders with interests in the basin's water resources.  I'm also hopeful that the event will lead to additional interdisciplinary collaboration at UW.”

To learn more about the Big Horn General Stream Adjudication, go to:

By Manasseh Franklin
Photo courtesy of Liz Nysson

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