WINDOW ROCK – Last week, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted the Navajo Nation’s request to overturn a decision of the Arizona District Court holding that the Nation’s claim that the United States had breached its fiduciary duty to the Navajo Nation in decisions regarding the management of the Colorado River was barred by sovereign immunity. Attorney General Ethel Branch explained the significance of the ruling: “The decision in Navajo Nation v. Department of Interior, 9th Circuit No. 14-16864, is particularly important for tribes within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit because it clarifies that Congress has waived the immunity of the United States for all suits for injunctive and declaratory relief that do not seek money damages.”
In 2003, the Navajo Nation filed a complaint in federal district court challenging various administrative decisions made by the Secretary of the Interior as water master for the Lower Colorado River Basin. The suit was stayed for a decade while the parties, including the States of Arizona, California, and Nevada, attempted to negotiate a settlement of the Nation’s Lower Basin water rights. When settlement efforts failed, the matter returned to the district court, and in 2014 the district court dismissed the Nation’s claims that the United States had failed to protect the Nation’s lands and waters, and failed to address the Nation’s need for water. The Nation’s claims were premised on obligations of the United States under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the federal trust responsibility. The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the NEPA claim, but remanded the case to permit the district court to consider the breach of trust claim.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie observed that “I have long recognized the work of our water rights attorneys in pursuing litigation to address the Nation’s water needs in ways other than through water rights adjudications in state court, and I am pleased with the decision of the Ninth Circuit upholding federal court jurisdiction over the Nation’s breach of trust claim.”
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Lorenzo Bates noted that “Water is sacred to the Navajo people and we will remain vigilant in our efforts to secure water rights through all means necessary including litigation.”