Tribal nations battle for influence on Colorado River – High Country News – Know the West

This story was reported and produced in association with grist.

Beginning of November, The US Supreme Court agreed to hear a case brought by the Navajo Nation that could have far-reaching implications for tribal water rights in the Colorado River Basin. In its lawsuit, the Navajo Nation argues that the Department of the Interior has a responsibility under treaty law to protect its future access to water from the Colorado River. Several states and water districts have petitioned against the Navajo Nation, saying the river is “already fully assigned.” The case highlights a growing tension in the region: as water levels fall and states face cutbacks and a two-decade mega-drought, tribal peoples are working to ensure their water rights are fully recognized and accessible.

On average, 15 million acre-feet of water flowed through the Colorado River each year. (As a scale, one acre-foot of water can supply one to three homes annually.) A century ago, states agreed to share that water among themselves. In recent decades, the river has provided nearly 12 million acre-feet, but scientists say climate change and drought are requiring water managers to budget for more than 9 million acre-feet per year, a 40% decrease in one water source supports 40 Millions of people.

No state has made any plans to compensate for this decline. Meanwhile, tribal nations have a legal claim to between 3.2 and 3.8 million acre-feet of groundwater and surface water from the Colorado River system.

There are 30 federally recognized tribes in the river basin, and 12 of them, including the Navajo Nation, still have at least some “unresolved” rights, meaning the extent of their rightful claims to water has yet to be agreed.


The data reflects resolved and partially resolved water rights for surface and groundwater among tribes in the basin as of 2018. The data reflects a 15 million acre-feet scenario. *Arizona holds some rights in the Upper Basin.

Source: Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy GIS Open Data Portal, Colorado River Basin, Womble et al. 2018

Ultimately, Indigenous nations in the Colorado River Basin could be serious power brokers in the crucial water negotiations to come — but they face historical, legal, and practical obstacles. The Navajo Nation, for example, has rights to nearly 700,000 acre-feet of water annually in New Mexico and Utah, along with unresolved claims in Arizona. However, due to a lack of infrastructure, up to 40% of Navajo households do not have running water. For the Navajo Nation and other tribes with allotments in the Basin, building and improving infrastructure means giving citizens access to a basic human right: water.

The Colorado River meanders beneath an overlook in Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah.

Tyana Arviso

But tribal water use is taken out of state allocations, meaning the more water tribes use, the less states have. It also means states have less incentive to work with tribal leaders or recognize pending water rights claims. This conflict is not new. It has been built into a century of policies that have excluded indigenous nations.

Tribes often own senior water rights, meaning their allotments are the last to be cut in the event of a shortage, and Colorado River Basin states are beginning to reckon with that fact. A fundamental shift in the way the river is governed – towards a system that recognizes tribal sovereignty and gives them more say – will be key to sustainable and equitable water distribution in the years to come.

Tribes “need to be included in any of these conversations and treated like a state or federal government.”

Source: Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy GIS Open Data Portal, Colorado River Basin, Womble et al. 2018

Tribes “need to be included in any of these conversations and viewed in the same way as a state or federal government,” said Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, at the annual Colorado River District seminar in September. “You can’t discount us.”

One obstacle to equitable distribution is a glaring information gap: There is no definitive source of data on water use among tribes in the Colorado River Basin. In the past, state surveys have ignored tribal water use, and although tribal-led studies have begun to fill in the gaps, the lack of data makes planning for a future river with shrinking flows impossible.

“If you know how much water everyone has or is being allocated, you can come up with a comprehensive solution — not just managing the river, but also responding to climate change,” says Heather Tanana (Diné), professor of law at the University of Utah. said in an interview.

Nancy Bitsue, an elderly member of the Navajo Nation, receives her monthly water delivery in Thoreau, New Mexico.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In Arizona, for example, nearly 70% of the state’s water allotment is tribal, and almost all tribal nations with unsettled water rights in the basin have at least some territory in the state. According to a joint study by tribal nations and the federal government, 10 tribes in the basin who own the bulk of recognized tribal water rights derive just over half of what is due them — most of which is used for agriculture. It is unclear what water availability would be like if these tribes had basic infrastructure to provide water to their citizens, or if all tribes with unsettled rights settled their cases.

“My experience of negotiating water rights settlements in Arizona is that the state of Arizona views them very strongly as a zero-sum game,” said Jay Weiner, water counselor for the Quechan Indian tribe as well as the Tonto Apache tribe, who has been in settlement negotiations since at least 2014 . That combative approach, he said, has continued regardless of the governor or political party. “It’s something that seems deeply embedded in the fabric of Arizona and how it’s approaching Indian water rights settlements.”


The data reflects the water diversions of 10 tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Data is largely self-reported and does not reflect annual average water use.

Source: Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study

IN FEBRUARY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT announced that tribes could use $1.7 billion for water settlements. That means more indigenous people and communities could have access to water. It also means states must work with tribes to plan for the future and adapt to climate change.

In some places, tribes and communities have already begun to move in this direction, working together to find place-based solutions that take advantage of existing resources and infrastructure. The Pascua Yaqui tribe and the city of Tucson, Arizona, have an interstate agreement that Tucson should store and supply drinking water for the tribe, which lacks the infrastructure to do so themselves. Such partnerships will only become more important as drought and dehydration continue to weigh on the region. “When people work together and work together, I think the ability to resolve the issue increases,” said Robyn Interpreter, an attorney representing the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the Yavapai-Apache Nation in their water rights claims.

“Now there is a greater desire to be able to work together. So that encourages me.”

The Navajo-Gallup federal water supply project, which is building $123 million worth of infrastructure, is another promising example. His goal is to build waterworks and a system of pipes and pumps that will supply water to the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the city of Gallup, New Mexico. Crystal Tulley-Cordova, a senior hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources’ water management division, said in an interview that there is a renewed willingness to work together, both because of the severity of the situation and because non-Indigenous water users are realizing that they have to work with tribes. “Now there is a greater desire to be able to work together. So that encourages me,” she said.

Meanwhile, tribal nations are also making progress in securing their access to water. In May, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act was completed, granting the Navajo Nation 81,500 acre-feet of water in Utah and approving $220 million in federal funding for water infrastructure projects. “Our families are celebrating this moment in history after decades of fighting for the Navajo Utah water rights settlement,” Navajo Nations Council delegate Charlaine Tso said in a statement at the time. “It is clear that drought conditions are affecting water levels across the country. Many of our elders are hauling potable water from miles away as we work to complete proper water infrastructure projects. This settlement allows us to connect our water mains to the most rural areas.”

Line pipes for the Navajo Gallup water supply project lie along Highway 461 in 2013.

ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

However, the tribes still have no direct means to manage the river, and as demonstrated by the Navajo water rights case currently pending in the Supreme Court, states continue to battle tribal communities seeking access to water.

Last fall, more than 20 tribes signed a letter to Home Secretary Deb Haaland urging direct and sustained involvement in the renegotiation of river management guidelines, due to expire in 2026. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, last March, Haaland and Bureau of Reclamation leadership met with tribal leaders and “committed to transparency and inclusivity for tribes as work begins on post-2026 operating rules,” according to a spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior.

“It’s up to the political imagination to see what’s possible,” said Andrew Curley (Diné), an assistant professor of geography at the University of Arizona, in an interview. “That is something that we collectively, not just indigenous nations, but led by indigenous nations, can begin to articulate. What is a different vision of the river than what has been enacted into legislation and these acts of Congress and Supreme Court decisions over the years?”

Data visualizations by Jessie Blaeser with assistance from Amelia Bates.

Anna V. Smith is Associate Editor at News from the Highlands. She was nominated three times in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards for Best Reporting on Native Americans. Joseph Lee is an Aquinnah Wampanoag author living in New York City. Jessie Blaeser is a data journalist based in New York City. E-mail News from the Highlands at [email protected] or submit letter to the editor. See ours Letters to the Editor Politics.

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