The Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation has joined a coalition of plaintiffs in a new case against the federal government for control of groundwater beneath the tribe’s ancestral homeland.
The lawsuit protests a 2012 decision by the Bureau of Land Management that authorized a right-of-way for a pipeline that would transport water from aquifers in central-eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.
The case alleges that those aquifers are linked to groundwater systems that extend into western Utah, and that drawdown from the pipeline could impact water supplies on the Goshute reservation in Ibapah.
“It would basically take all the water from us — and not just us, but the people all the way down — and it would turn all that land into a dust bowl,” said Zelda Johnny, vice chairwoman for the Goshute tribe.
The suit also charges that drawdown in Spring Valley would impact a system of springs that is considered sacred to the Goshute, Shoshone, and Paiute tribes. Water is of spiritual significance to these Native American cultures, Goshute Tribal Chairwoman Madeline Greymountain explained, and those particular springs are believed to be the home of certain important spirits as well.
“Some of our people still visit this area in prayer, meditation and giving thanks,” Greymountain said in an email. “The area is powerful in spirit and rejuvenates our thoughts, our minds, our hearts and our souls.”
Additionally, the springs are historically significant as the site of three known massacres of Goshute and Shoshone worshipers. In 1859 and again in 1863, members of the U.S. military descended on the springs during a Native American religious ceremony and killed hundreds of men, women and children, said Monte Sanford, an environmental advisor to the Goshute tribe.
In 1897, a vigilante militia recreated the previous massacres, killing another 350 Native Americans who had come to the site to gather pine nuts. Two young girls who survived made their way home to report the incident to other members of their tribe, Sanford said.
It is believed that the spirits of the victims of those massacres continue to reside at those springs, Greymountain said, and it is possible that they are buried nearby as well.
Greymountain said the tribe is concerned about the long-term consequences of groundwater drawdown in the area. In similar situations, she said, the landscape changed and has never returned to its previous state.
“The impact would be detrimental to all life,” she said. “Nothing thrives without water.”
Furthermore, the pipeline would give control of the aquifer to a population that would not have to live with the consequences, Greymountain said.
“The pipeline would run for more than 100 years,” she said. “And the person with the authority to hit the off switch is in Nevada, not Utah.”
The Goshutes have a history of conflict with the BLM, an agency that Greymountain said has either completely ignored, or improperly conducted required consultations with the tribe.
“Generally, a decision has already been made and we’re just being informed,” she said. “How can a decision be in your best interest if you’re not part of it?”
Greymountain said the BLM’s behavior has eroded the tribe’s trust in the agency, and has made tribal members who otherwise might be willing to negotiate wary of compromise.
“We’re continually viewed as hostile, but I think that’s not the image we want out there when most of us would be willing to listen if we felt included from the beginning,” Greymountain said.
The BLM has not yet responded to the suit.
In a related case against the Nevada State Engineer who initially approved the groundwater development project, a district court judge in Nevada recently ruled in favor of the tribes — a major victory, Echohawk said. The Nevada State Engineer has appealed that decision, and the case is currently waiting on the Nevada State Supreme Court for a hearing schedule.
According to Paul Echohawk, an attorney representing the tribe in the cases against the BLM, it is possible that the water rights battle could work all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final decision. Though the chances that the Supreme Court will hear any case are slim, the Goshutes intend to follow it to the end, as necessary.
“When you want to protect something, you go forward with all you have,” Greymountain said.