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North Dakota Law Review
University of North Dakota
School of Law
P.O. Box 9003
Grand Forks, ND 58202-9003

Editor in Chief:
(701) 777-2272
Law Review Office:
(701) 777-2941
Administrative Assistant:
(701) 777-2282

Volume 85, Number 1 (2009)


Indian Reserved Water Rights: Impending Conflict or Coming Rapprochement Between the State of North Dakota and North Dakota Indian Tribes

by Charles Carvell

85 N.D. L. Rev. 1 (2009)



This article summarizes the foundation of North Dakota water law, that is, the prior appropriation doctrine. It then reviews the path by which non-Indians took homesteads on North Dakota Indian reservations, which in turn explains, first, the significant modern-day presence of non-Indian residents and non-Indian-owned land on reservations; second, the state’s effort to control some on-reservation water and its use; and third, it explains a fundamental source of tension between tribes and the state. The article recounts tribal assertions of jurisdiction over on-reservation water resources and their adamant rejection of North Dakota water law. It then reviews the 1908 Winters decision and its development during the past few decades, with an emphasis on the standard by which Indian reserved water rights are often measured, that is, practicably irrigable acres. How this standard might apply on North Dakota reservations, and if it should apply, are also addressed. The article concludes with an overview of the relationship between the tribes and the state regarding water.

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