37-year lawsuit over water, tribal rights on Wind-Big Horn examined in UW event

By WyoFile staff
— September 1, 2014

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One of the longest-running lawsuits over water in the history of Wyoming may finally be coming to a close — and the University of Wyoming is putting on a two-day symposium in Riverton Sept. 10-12 to consider what it has all meant.

The “general stream adjudication” of the Wind-Big Horn River will be officially wrapped up at the lower court level on Friday, Sept. 5. District Judge Robert E. Skar of the 5th Judicial District is expected to sign his final adjudication decree on that day in Worland. His final ruling, of course, may well be appealed to the Wyoming Supreme Court — which has already ruled seven times, from 1988-2004, on various aspects of the case.

The big water rights adjudication began 37 years ago. In 1977, the Wyoming Legislature initiated the case in order to challenge the assertion made by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes that they had rights in the Wind River. In order to have the water rights decided by state courts in Wyoming, rather than the federal courts, federal law required that the state call for examination of the water rights of not only the two tribes but every water right claimant in the Wind-Big Horn Basin — over 20,000 people or entities. Millions of dollars and untold number of hours have been spent by the many parties who have been pulled into the lawsuit.

In its rulings on the case, the Wyoming Supreme Court confirmed the tribes’ rights to a majority of the water flowing in the Wind River, but as a practical matter put strict limits on its use. As the case has progressed, the water claims and actual water use of people and entities all over the Wind-Big Horn Basin have been examined to arrive at a final determination of their rights. The basin constitutes one of four water divisions in Wyoming. None of the other three divisions have ever undergone a general stream adjudication, and state water officials do not expect such an effort to be undertaken elsewhere.

UW’s College of Law, joined by 13 other UW departments, programs and schools, plans a free symposium on the adjudication. The event will feature local and national experts on water law and tribal rights who will compare and contrast the Big Horn litigation and results with efforts elsewhere to settle often-difficult water rights disputes between Indian and non-Indian people in the American West.

The symposium is open to the public for no charge, and will begin with a welcoming reception on Wednesday evening, Sept. 10. The event will take place at the Wind River Hotel and Casino in Riverton, Wyoming. Advance registration is requested, at the website, which includes a detailed agenda.

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