When officials in California, Arizona and Nevada signed an agreement this month to take less water from the shrinking Colorado River, much of the water savings came from deals with two tribes. indigenous.
Indigenous leaders have also been called on by the Biden administration to play a key role in future negotiations on managing shortages.
The growing involvement of tribes in discussions over how to manage the West’s scarce water supplies marks a dramatic turning point in a century-old history of being left on the sidelines.
“We really see ourselves as a leader in this area,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian community, whose reserve is located south of Phoenix. “It’s part of our value system to conserve water when we can. And we see that even as a moral obligation.
Lewis is part of a growing movement that is pushing Indigenous communities to have a say in decisions about the river, which supports towns and farms in the West, but faces chronic overuse and dwindling water. snowpack in its sources in the Rocky Mountains.
He was one of the 20 tribal chiefs from across the Colorado River basin who signed a joint letter Home Secretary Deb Haaland last month, saying tribes have a “critical role” to play in upcoming negotiations to deal with shortages after 2026, when current rules expire.
They told Haaland, the country’s first indigenous cabinet secretary, that they should be at the table alongside the seven states that depend on the river.
“Basin tribes hold water rights to about 3 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River, which is equivalent to about 25% of the river’s current average annual flow,” their letter explained. “This percentage will only increase as climate change continues to decrease the overall amounts of runoff and reduce the amount of water available to lower priority users.”
There are 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Some have unresolved water rights claims and serious deficiencies in water infrastructure. In the Navajo Nation, for example, it is estimated that 30% or more of the people live in houses without running water.
Other tribes have secured water rights settlements but have yet to develop and fully utilize their water rights in the Colorado River.
Tribal leaders have told the federal government that the next set of rules must “recognize and include support” for access to clean drinking water and tribal water rights agreements, as well as allow tribes to market their own. water outside their reserves and be compensated for spending unused water boosting reservoirs.
Haaland responded in a letter to the tribes, saying she is “committed to bringing tribal voices and perspectives to the day-to-day decisions” of the federal government, including decisions about water management.
Haaland said she would hold a “listening session” in early 2022 to hear from tribes in the Colorado River Basin.
Lewis said the federal government’s response represents a “night and day” change from the past: “It’s such a dramatic change for the tribes to be at the table in a very meaningful way. “
Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico, noted that the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which established the river’s water allocation system, did not apply to tribes.
And when the last guidelines for managing the river were negotiated in 2007, tribes were not included either.
“I think with the promises that this administration has made and the appointments that it has made, absolutely the stars are aligned in terms of our ability to actually forge something and transform the basin,” Vigil said.
Under the water conservation agreement signed this month, the Gila River Indian community and Colorado River Indian tribes together will conserve approximately 134,000 acre-feet of water next year, or more than quarter of the 500,000 acre-feet pledged by the tri-state. go to Lake Mead.
The community of Gila River will receive approximately $ 30 million for its portion of the water next year. The community plans to leave some farmland on the reserve dry and fallow and bring water that would otherwise have been stored or brought to the market in Arizona.
Lewis signed the agreement alongside President Amelia Flores of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reserve straddles the river in Arizona and California.
“The Colorado River has supported us for many, many generations,” said Flores at the signing ceremony. “It’s time for all of us to help save this river. “
The two tribes struck a similar deal in 2019 as part of Arizona’s drought plan. When that deal was sealed in a ceremony on a terrace overlooking the Hoover Dam, representatives of the seven states signed on.
This time, indigenous leaders signed their agreements alongside Assistant Home Secretary Tanya Trujillo, who pledged “more and better coordination” with the tribes.
Robert Glennon, water researcher and law professor at the University of Arizona, said it was historic and “very moving to see tribes represented so prominently on stage, because it’s new” .
“Historically, the tribes weren’t in the room – it didn’t matter at the table and whatever the conduct of the agenda was,” Glennon said. And now, he said, “without the tribes there is no agreement.”
The Colorado River has long been overused, with more water diverted to farms and towns than the river’s flows can handle. Reservoirs in the river have shrunk dramatically during a 22-year dry spell, which research shows has been made worse by global warming.
Tribal leaders say more needs to be done to right long-term injustices faced by indigenous communities who lack access to water for homes and farms.
Speaking at a recent panel of native community leaders, Forrest Cuch, an elder from the Ute Indian tribe, said the Uinta River in Utah has grown from an active tributary to Colorado to barely now.
“In the Uinta Basin, farmers are plowing land unsuitable for production,” said Cuch, former director of the Utah Indian Affairs Division.
He described the history of the Colorado River as a story of “exploitation, extraction and development at all costs.”