Skip to content
Joe Ely, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, at home in Apache Junction, Ariz.

Joe Ely, of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, at home in Apache Junction, Ariz.

Photographer: Caitlin O'Hara/Bloomberg
Climate Politics

How to Win Battles Over Water in the Parched American West

In drought-scorched areas where fights emerge over dwindling rivers and basins, American Indian tribes hire Joe Ely, a water rights negotiator. 

For at least 60 years there were no salmon in the Umatilla River. The water that the fish needed was being drawn off by the US government and used to irrigate 45,000 acres of former desert. But the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla tribes, who lived beside the river, had not forgotten the fish that had sustained them for centuries. They wanted them back. A 1988 act of Congress returned some water to the river. Then, in 2004, the three tribes (legally organized as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation) hired Joe Ely to help them get the rest.

Ely, 64, is one of a handful of professional Indian water rights consultants and the only one who is himself an American Indian. “I’m going to try to obtain as much water as I can,” Ely tells his clients. “You’re going to have to deal with the conflict.” Ely learned all about conflict when he won water for his tribe, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes of Nevada. His brothers would act as bodyguards, escorting him from meetings. Now he works for other tribal nations trying to settle their water rights. “Settle” often means wresting water from White irrigators, but it also means satisfying enough stakeholders—states, cities, farmers, industry—that the majority sign on to the deal voluntarily, or under the threat of litigation.