Environment | Law | Trust

Hopi Tribe loses bid to force US to pay for clean drinking water

A water spring on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Photo from Hopi Tribe Water Resources Program

The federal government does not have an obligation to provide clean drinking water to the Hopi Tribe of Arizona, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday.

The water supply on the reservation contains arsenic levels that exceed limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The tribe accused the government of violating its trust duties by failing to fix the system but a judge with the U.S. Court of Federal Claims rejected the claim.

On appeal, the Federal Circuit affirmed the dismissal. A three-judge panel said U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires the tribe to cite laws or regulations that imposed an obligation on its trustee.

"We understand that water quality on parts of the Hopi Reservation is unacceptable, due in part to insufficient funds for new water infrastructure," Judge Todd Michael Hughes wrote for the majority. "But the Supreme Court’s decisions are controlling in this case. Because the Hopi Tribe has not identified a money-mandating obligation that the United States allegedly violated, we must affirm the Court of Federal Claims’ dismissal of this suit for lack of jurisdiction under the Indian Tucker Act."

The tribe could ask the Federal Circuit to rehear the case or it could take the matter to the Supreme Court. The justices, as recently as 2011, confirmed that Indian beneficiaries are at the whims of their trustee when they try to seek accountability.

"Throughout the history of the Indian trust relationship, we have recognized that the organization and management of the trust is a sovereign function subject to the plenary authority of Congress," the high court wrote in US v. Jicarilla Apache Nation.

Turtle Talk has posted documents from the case, Hopi Tribe v. US.

Federal Circuit Decision:
Hopi Tribe v. US (April 2, 2015)

Court of Federal Claims Decision:
Hopi Tribe v. US (October 4, 2013)

Related Stories:
Judge dismisses Hopi Tribe suit over arsenic in water supply (10/9)

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