Western tribes are pushing for a greater role in water management

When officials from California, Arizona and Nevada signed a deal this month to take less water from the shrinking Colorado River, much of the water savings came through agreements with two Native American tribes.

Indigenous leaders have also been invited by the Biden administration to play a key role in future negotiations to address bottlenecks.

The growing involvement of tribes in discussions about managing the West’s scarce water supplies marks a dramatic turning point in a centuries-long history of standing on the sidelines.

“We really see ourselves as leaders here,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, whose reservation is south of Phoenix. “This is part of our value system to conserve water when we can. And we even see this as a moral obligation.”

Lewis is part of a growing movement pushing for Indigenous communities to have a greater say in decisions about the river, which feeds towns and farms across the West but faces chronic overexploitation and declining snow cover in its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains.

An RV is dwarfed by the monumental grandeur of the Hoover Dam near Boulder City.

A “bathtub ring” of white rocks in the surrounding landscape at Hoover Dam shows the drop in water levels in Lake Mead, the Colorado River’s giant reservoir behind the dam.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

He was one of 20 tribal leaders from across the Colorado River Basin who signed a joint letter to Home Secretary Deb Haaland last month saying tribes have a “essential role” to play in upcoming negotiations to deal with post-2026 shortages, when current ones rules expire.

They told Haaland, the country’s first indigenous cabinet secretary, that they must sit at the table alongside the seven states that rely on the river.

“Basin Tribes own water rights to approximately 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, which is approximately 25% of the river’s current average annual flow,” their letter explained. “This percentage will only increase if climate change further reduces total runoff rates and reduces the amount of water available to lower-priority users.”

There are 29 federally recognized tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Some have unsettled claims to water rights and serious deficiencies in water infrastructure. In the Navajo Nation, for example, an estimated 30% or more of the people live in homes without running water.

Other tribes have secured water rights settlements but have not yet been able to fully develop and use their rights to the Colorado River water.

The tribal leaders told the federal government that the next round of rules must “recognize and include” support for access to clean water and settlements for tribal water rights, and allow tribes to market their water outside their reservations and be compensated for the use of unused water to become boost reservoirs.

Boats float on Lake Powell

A white ring around Lake Powell shows the decline in water levels.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Haaland responded in a letter to the tribes, saying she has “a duty to bring tribal voices and tribal perspectives into everyday decisions,” including decisions about water management.

Haaland said she will 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 “day and night” shift from the past: “It’s such a dramatic shift for tribes to be at the table in a very meaningful way.”

Daryl Vigil, water manager for the Jicarilla Apache Nation of New Mexico, noted that the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which established the system for allocating water from the river, did not apply to tribes.

And when the latest river management guidelines were negotiated in 2007, the tribes weren’t considered either.

“I think with the promises that this administration has made and the appointments that it has made, absolutely stars align in terms of our ability to actually forge something and change the basin,” Vigil said.

Tree stumps stick out of the ground in the ghost town of St. Thomas, Nevada.

St. Thomas, Nev., in Lake Mead National Recreation Area, was abandoned when water rose behind Hoover Dam and formed Lake Mead. However, the city’s ruins have resurfaced as water levels in the Colorado River’s vast reservoir dropped.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Under the water savings agreement signed this month, the Gila River Indian Community and Colorado River Indian Tribes will collectively save about 134,000 acre-feet of water over the next year — more than a quarter of the 500,000 acre-feet the three states have pledged in Lake Mead to leave.

The Gila River community will receive about $30 million for their portion of the water next year. The community plans to leave some arable land on the reservation dry and fallow and contribute water that would otherwise have been stored or brought to market in Arizona.

Lewis signed the agreement with Chairwoman Amelia Flores of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation spans the river in Arizona and California.

“The Colorado River has sustained us for many, many generations,” Flores said during the signing ceremony. “It’s time we all help save this river.”

The two tribes struck a similar deal in 2019 as part of Arizona’s part of a drought plan. When the agreement was sealed in a ceremony on a patio overlooking the Hoover Dam, representatives from the seven states signed it.

A fisherman settles on the banks of the Colorado River

A fisherman settles on the banks of the Colorado River, which flows through the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

This time, the tribal leaders signed their agreements alongside Deputy Home Secretary Tanya Trujillo, who promised “more and better coordination” with the tribes.

Robert Glennon, an aquatic scientist and law professor at the University of Arizona, said it’s historic and “very moving to see the tribes so visibly represented on stage because this is new.”

“Historically, tribes have not been in the room — let alone at the table, let alone pushing the agenda,” Glennon said. And now he said, “Without the tribes, there’s no deal.”

The Colorado River has long been congested, diverting more water to farms and towns than the river’s flows can support. The river’s reservoirs have declined dramatically during a 22-year dry spell, which research says has been made worse by global warming.

Visitors to Dobbins Lookout see the lights of Phoenix in the Valley of the Sun below.

Onlookers marvel at the lights of Phoenix at Dobbins Lookout. Located in one of the hottest and driest regions in the nation, the city gets much of its water supply from the Colorado River.

(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Tribal leaders say more needs to be done to right the long-term injustices faced by native communities who do not have access to water for homes and farms.

Forrest Cuch, an elder of the Ute Indian tribe, told a recent roundtable with Native American leaders that Utah’s Uinta River has gone from being an active tributary of the Colorado to a barely flowing river.

“In the Uinta Basin, we have farmers plowing land that is not suitable for production,” said Cuch, a former director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.

He described the history of the Colorado River as one of “exploitation, mining, and development at any cost.” Western tribes are pushing for a greater role in water management

Tom Vazquez

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