The Wind River Water Code of the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes (Tribes) recognizes that the reservation's natural resources are all interconnected and that there are cultural,spiritual and economic values to the resources that should guide their use, management, and protection.
The Wind River Environmental Quality Commission (WREQC) is approximately fifteen years old with its birth year, 1985. Thereafter, the Joint Business Council (JBC),----for the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes (Tribes), through their General Councils enacted the WREQC into the Wind River Indian Reservation's (Reservation) Law Enforcement Codes (WRLEC), for the Reservation in 1986, Chapter 18 of the WRLEC addresses the WREQC and its authority.
The driving force behind bringing the WREQC into reality back in the mid-1970's,---State of Wyoming brought a legal law suit against the Wind River Tribes over ownership of Water Rights on the Reservation and who managed these Water Rights. The Tribes were forced to defend themselves and the right to administer the Tribal Water and Water Rights. The Tribes realized they did not have a science arm or any kind of Tribal entity collecting or managing the Tribes water, natural resources, and environment. The Tribes were forced to formulate their legal defense on the water, based on the data they collected from the different Federal agencies who had been collecting water quality and flow information, and other natural resource data on the Reservation for several years.
As noted, back in 1985, the Tribes realized they should have been collecting water quality data themselves and they should have their own environmental protection agency to manage these tasks for the Tribes. They also realized that they should have been responsible party in charge of water distribution and water rights on the Reservation. The Tribes relied on all the Federal agencies, which none of them had the information on water quality and water rights or who should be managing these Tribal water rights. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was operating the Reservation's irrigation systems and had been since the early 1930's, and the BIA did not have any records on water use, water distribution, nor did they have a water distribution plan based on any kind of water rights. This was a very difficult blow to the Tribes in their case with the State, since they relied on the BIA and its trust responsibilities to the Tribes to keep tabs on the Tribes water rights. As a matter of fact, the issue of Water Rights had never been brought to the attention of the Tribes or the BIA before this water suit was brought by the State of Wyoming.
The State of Wyoming was based basing its arguments on the State's Constitution which was enacted in 1886 where it states, "....All waters in the State of Wyoming belong to the State, and that the State has the legal right to administer these waters as the State sees fit, with the best management practices in place, the first in time, first in right." These State ideas of water ownership, and water right ownership were all based on Western Water Law. Wyoming is the first state to establish Western Water Law. All previous water law was based on Riparian Eastern Law.
The Tribes had the Winters Document and also the fact that the Reservation was established long before the State of Wyoming became a State. The Reservation was established in 1868, some eighteen years before the State of Wyoming became a State, so how could the later stake claim to own the water and own water rights, when they came into being after the Reservation was established?
The water suit, thereafter known as The Big Horn Water Case, lasted for over fifteen years. Finally the case was brought before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988, where in1989 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Wind River Tribes owned 500,250 thousand acre feet of water, and that the Tribal Water Rights would be based on the date the Wind River Reservation was established in 1868. The Tribes were given 1868 Water Rights, which is the oldest water right in the Wind River Basin area.
In 1985, the WREQC was brought into being by the JBC where they made WREQC one of the many Joint Programs operated by the JBC. The JBC established a Joint Tribal budget for WREQC at $750,000 dollars to get the WREQC up and running. The JBC took other actions, to make sure that there was a separation in the legislative governing bodies here on the Reservation, the separation was between policy and direct management of a Tribal entity. To further demonstrate this separation, the JBC appointed the Commissioners which would be a citizen advisory board for WREQC, they were known as the Wind River Environmental Quality Commissioners. None of the C Commissioners were on salary and the only funds they could collect from WREQC were reimbursement of their out of pocket expenses when they attended WREQC and Commissioner meetings, or hearings.
In 1988, the JBC hired an Executive Director, Dr. Kate Vandermore who had her Ph.D. in Natural Resources. She was the first director for WREQC and she immediately began the development of a Water Code for the Wind River Reservation, which was noticeable missing during the Big Horn Water Case with the State of Wyoming. The State of Wyoming still contend that the U.S. Supreme Court might have given the Tribes ownership to over 500,00 acre feet of water, but the State still had the right to manage this valuable resource. The Tribes were awarded an 1868 Water Right, however who was to manage and who owned this water was never fully addressed. Both sides to-date contend they have full right to manage and they won won the water, this will ultimately will have to be settled.
The WREQC completed this work on the development of the Reservation's Water Code by 1990, with the help from the Tribal attorneys. The Water Code was presented to the JBC, where they held several public hearings on the Water Code, and thereafter the Water Code was presented to both the General Councils of both tribes and enacted the Law Enforcement Codes in 1991.
In 1991, the WREQC moved from the development of a Tribal Water Code and quantification of the water and management of water rights, to discovering what the quality of the Reservations water is. This brought the WREQC into working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Numerous concerns had to be addressed before the WREQC could receive funds from the EPA. At this point in time, the EPA did not have a very clear means to work with Indian Tribes, and the funding of these Tribal Governments was very difficult. The Tribes had to apply for Treatment As a State (TAS) status, so the EPA could fund the tribal projects and Tribal Environmental Programs. The WREQC completed its TAS in 1991 and began receiving EPA grants and funds almost immediately. The WREQC received a $26,000 dollar Radon Grant from the EPA to evaluate the levels of radon in private homes and in Tribal buildings. Thereafter the WREQC received its first 106 Clean Water Grant, to study the water in the Big Wind and the effects of low water fisheries. This 106 grant was for $93,000.00 dollars and all the scientific work was contracted out to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who in turn sub-contracted with the Colorado State University to do the work. At this time, the WREQC did not have the capabilities to do water research or any other kind of environmental research. This was soon to change, with the Tribes beating on the doors of the EPA, that the Tribes wanted everything that the EPA was giving to the States, which was clean drinking water, solid waste management, and establishing rules and regulations to administer these kind of programs.
The WREQC began with Joint Tribal funds and started to look for future funding to support the environmental research activities that the WREQC was looking down the road to complete. As noted, the first in a series of EPA Grants, the Radon Grant for $26,000.00 dollars was the first and thereafter the WREQC received the first 106 CWA grant to begin looking at the waters on the Reservation. The WREQC was one of the first Indian Environmental Programs in the United States to receive a Multi- Media Grant which later became General Assistance Program (GAP) to help Tribes with their capacity building efforts in doing environmental work. The WREQC still has a GAP grant and continues to use these EPA- GAP funds to build the WREQC capacity to a stronger position.
From these formative years, the WREQC has grown into a large multi-media Tribal Environmental Program which has a comprehensive 106 Clean Water Program, a 103 Air Program, NPDES, Hazmat, and an Environmental Protection Program, which is in the process of developing environmental codes to protect the pristine Reservation environment.