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How Colorado River Basin Tribes Manage Water Amid Historic Drought

This story is published in partnership with High Country News.

In the midst of a historic drought in the Colorado River Basin, the Gila River Indian Community is taking a drastic step to protect their own water resources. In a statement last week, Governor Stephen Roe Lewis announced that the tribe, located just south of Phoenix,would voluntarily stop supplying water to a major state reservoir. “We cannot continue to put everyone else’s interests above our own when no other party appears committed to the common goal of a basin-wide cooperative agreement,” he read in the statement.

Since 2021, Lake Mead, a crucial water supply for the region, has been powered by voluntary water contributions from the Gila River Indian Community and Colorado River Indian Tribes. The Colorado River is a crucial source of water in the West, supplying water to 40 million people in seven states and Mexico. For years, tribes and communities in those states have received water from rivers based on a complex allocation system, but last week the federal government announced historic water shutoffs that will force hardest-hit state Arizona to reduce water withdrawals from the Lake Mead reservoir. by 21 percent next year. Lake Mead levels are currently at a record low of about 27 percent of capacity.

By contributing their water to Lake Mead at affordable prices, the Gila River Indian Community was essentially subsidizing Arizona’s water supply while sacrificing the opportunity to sell that water at higher prices or use it on the reservation for agriculture or other industry. . Now, in the face of cutbacks and other communities unwilling to make sacrifices for the collective good, the Gila River is going strong. According to the statement, the lack of progress toward a sustainable water management plan left the tribe with no choice but to store the water independently rather than support the state’s water supply. “We are aware that this approach will have a very significant impact on the ability of the state of Arizona to make a meaningful commitment to water reductions in the basin status discussions,” Lewis said in the statement.

Meanwhile, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, who have also been contributing some of their water to help keep Lake Mead’s levels up, have opted to continue storing water in the reservoir. in a Press releasePresident Amelia Flores reiterated her tribe’s commitment to a continued crop and fallow plan for their water allocations in response to the shutoffs. In other words, the Colorado River Indian Tribes are sticking to a plan that misses out on maximizing their farm and water revenues. “We recognize that the decades-long drought has reduced the availability of water for all of us in the basin,” Flores said. “We continue to conserve water and develop ways to use less water as we adapt to higher temperatures, more wind and less precipitation.”

These two decisions illustrate the difficult choices facing the thirty federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Because tribes are sovereign governments, their water rights are determined by the federal government, rather than the state, like cities and towns. Water rights allow tribes to maintain agricultural self-sufficiency, restore and manage land, and support their communities. But to actually use their water, tribes face a unique set of challenges, including inadequate infrastructure that limits some people’s access to their water allotments. And for tribes still fighting to have their rights recognized, continued shortages may make their battle even more difficult. As the region braces for the cutoffs, tribes are working to ensure they have a voice during ongoing water management negotiations.

A sign shows where Lake Mead’s water levels were in 2002
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A 1908 Supreme Court decision established that tribes have the right to draw water from rivers that run through their reservations to enable self-sufficiency. But in its ongoing colonization of the West, the federal government met the needs of white settlers before those of indigenous nations. Through the Bureau of Reclamation, founded in 1902, hundreds of dams and reservoirs were built to divert millions of gallons of water from the Colorado River and other waterways to serve the growing settler populations of the West. Between 1980 and 2000, the basin was thriving, with water levels in its reservoirs nearing capacity. But even after two decades of drought, the reservoir’s unprecedented 27 percent capacity caught officials by surprise. The Lower Colorado River Basin, one of the Bureau’s 6 water regions, consists of the Southwest and Mountain States, as well as much of Southern California, and is where tensions between individual states and tribal around water conservation policies are reaching a critical point.

Twenty-two tribes in the watershed have obtained recognized water rights and allotments, which they claimed through a combination of legislation, agreements, and court decisions. These allocations total about 3.2 million acre-feet per year, which represents about a quarter of the river’s annual supply. Arizona’s total allocation is less than 3 million acre-feet per year. The Department of the Interior directed basin states and tribes to develop a voluntary water conservation plan to add an additional 2 to 4 million acre-feet of water to stabilize the Colorado River and its two largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell.

But according to a July 22 letter To Tanya Trujillo, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science at the Department of the Interior, leaders of fourteen Colorado River Basin tribes argued that neither the states nor the Department of the Interior were adequately consulting them on a viable conservation plan.

The letter cites the federal government’s legal obligations to tribes, in particular a executive order issued by President Clinton in 2000 that requires federal departments and agencies to consult with tribal governments when planning policies that affect their communities. “We should not have to remind you, but we will again, that as our trustee, you must protect our rights, our assets and people in addition to any actions you take on behalf of the system,” the letter said.

Nora McDowell is the former Chairperson of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and a member of the Water and Tribes Initiative. She says the tribes have been forced to follow state and federal water use decisions, even though the tribes have successfully managed the river since time immemorial. She thinks it’s time for tribes to have a bigger say in conservation plans. “We’ve always been marginalized or not even consulted,” McDowell said of ongoing conservation planning. “But the difference here is that we have the rights to that water.”

But twelve tribes are still fighting for all their water rights to be recognized. And as the competition for water becomes even fiercer, these tribes are left in an even more precarious position.

“Issues have been around for a long time on the river and the current situation is exacerbating them and making it much more difficult to try to negotiate water deals,” Jay Weiner, a water advisor for the Tonto Apache Tribe, who is currently in settlement negotiations, he said. “There are political incentives for non-Indigenous water users, essentially to try to put roadblocks in the way of tribal development because otherwise the water will come out of someone’s bucket.”

At least six Arizona cities have declared water shortages because of the drought. And with dangerously low water levels in both Lake Mead and Lake Powell, tribal water, whether in the form of voluntary contributions like the Colorado River Indian Tribes continue to make, or in the form of tribal water rights undeveloped, will play an important role. in the region’s water supply. Because all water users have to reduce water use in response to drought, tribes trying to reclaim their water rights face negotiators reluctant to part with the water. The scarcity has only further complicated ongoing settlement, “because as a practical matter right now, water rights users in the watershed rely on those unquantified or undeveloped tribal water rights.”

woman draws water from a pipe near a truck with barrels on the bed
A woman sucks water into a bucket on the Navajo Nation.
RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Meanwhile, even tribes with recognized water rights face an uphill battle to make the most of their water allotments. Some tribes simply lack the piped infrastructure needed for agriculture or drinking water, are too geographically dispersed, or their water resources have been contaminated by extractive industry.

In may 27th, 18 years of negotiations came to an end when Congress passed a bill giving the Navajo Nation 81,500 acre-feet of water annually from sources in the Colorado River basin within Utah. However, an estimated 30 to 40 percent of homes on the Navajo Nation, which encompasses Utah Territory, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, do not have running water. It is not clear how much these new water cuts will affect the development of critical infrastructure for the Navajo, which will take years.

Nora McDowell of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe believes it will take a collective effort to ensure a sustainable future for the Colorado River and access to water in the region. That effort will require major changes in water management and the role of tribes in it. “It’s a critical time right now and people need to wake up and see what we’re dealing with,” she said. “We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing for the last 100 years.”


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