The Coeur d’Alene Tribe prevails in water rights appeal before Idaho Supreme Court

Pictured: The 2019 Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, from L to R, Charlotte Nilson, Dave Matheson, Chief Allen (Vice Chair), Donnie Sczenski (Secretary/Treasurer), Ernie Stensgar (Chairman), Christopher Luke. and Hemene (Heme) James.(Photo: Jennifer Fletcher)

Tribe has been adjudicating its claims to reserved water rights in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication since 2014

News Release

Coeur d’Alene Tribe - Office of the Legal Counsel

On Thursday September 5, 2019, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe prevailed in its claims for water rights before the Idaho Supreme Court in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication (CSRBA). Since 2014, the Tribe has been adjudicating its claims to reserved water rights in the Coeur d’Alene-Spokane River Basin Adjudication. The dispute reached the Idaho Supreme Court last year, with oral arguments held in November 2018. The Idaho Supreme Court issued its decision last Thursday and upheld many of the Tribe’s claims.   

“Whatever came in or through the lands with the water, we utilized for the continuation and betterment of our Tribe,” said Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar. “This issue has always been about continuing to provide our people with the resource of water to continue the traditions we have held since time immemorial.”

In a major decision on Indian water rights, the Idaho Supreme Court rejected the application of a strict primary-secondary purpose test that has been advanced by parties challenging and seeking to limit the Tribe’s water rights.

“The issue of reserved water rights is momentous and affects tribal people across the nation,” said Stensgar. “We are pleased this decision can help not just us but other tribal nations strengthen their arguments regarding their own claims.”

The Tribe prevailed in claiming that the Reservation was established in 1873 for a broad homeland purpose, which entitles the Tribe to an array of water rights to fulfill that purpose. Significantly, the decision also firmly entitles the Tribe to water in Lake Coeur d’Alene to fulfill the purposes of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation.

“The purpose of the water on our homelands is for our people to live,” Stensgar said. “Previous decisions have dismissed our stance that the ‘purpose’ of our reservation was to provide life to our people. Water is life and this most recent opinion by the court supports and validates our connection and responsibility to the water.”

The Idaho Supreme Court rejected the arguments by the State of Idaho and the North Idaho Water Rights Group that the Reservation had a narrow and sole agricultural purpose. The Court also rejected attempts by the State and North Idaho to claim that later events limited the purposes of the Reservation.

“Today’s decision support those claims, the water flowing through this land is essential to our culture and survival, not just for specific and narrow ideas,” said Stensgar.

The Tribe is pleased with the decision that upholds its rights to water throughout the Reservation and in Lake Coeur d’Alene for broad purposes. The Tribe welcomes the next phase of the litigation, which will be to determine the amount of water to fulfill the broad purposes of the Reservation upheld by the Idaho Supreme Court.

Coeur d’Alene Tribe seal, small
(Image: Coeur d’Alene Tribe)
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