Tribes seek to secure their water rights as Colorado River dries

Tribes seek to secure their water rights as Colorado River dries
A view of Reflection Canyon in Lake Powell, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, in 2013. (NPS photo)

by Jeniffer Solis, Nevada Current

LAS VEGAS–Historically excluded from Colorado River negotiations, tribes are demanding to be included in policy discussions on how the water is managed.

Ahead of a conference of the Colorado River Water Users Association in Las Vegas, a group of conservationists and tribal leaders held a press conference on the overuse of water within the Colorado River Basin Monday.

“There’s a wide range of people who are a part of this but what weight does each individual state have when they come to the table? What weight does each tribe have?” said Timothy Williams, Chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. “I don’t see any tribe at that signing table, yet our water is being used.”

The Fort Mojave Tribe, whose reservation lies partially within Nevada, is one of 10 federally recognized tribes with reserved water rights in the Colorado River Basin. 

Yet, the tribe has been left out of the policymaking process for the river despite having a senior priority date that supersedes even that of the Southern Nevada Water Authority in Clark County, meaning they take precedence over most other water users whose rights have later dates.

In 1922, seven states in the Colorado River Basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada — signed the Colorado River Compact, an agreement on how to divide the river water equitably among states.

However, tribal members, who weren’t considered U.S. citizens at the time, were excluded from negotiations. Tribal nations were again excluded from policymaking in 2007 when states renegotiated water divisions due to increasing drought conditions.

That agreement is set to expire in 2026, meaning states will need to agree on a new set of Colorado River rules. Tribes are now pushing to be included in those negotiations for the first time.

“Being left out of those groups and trying to squeeze in at different times has been something,” Williams said, during the conference. “The table keeps moving and moving and moving.” 

Williams said tribes have now built the capacity to demand a spot at the negotiating table. Part of that capacity is the work of the Colorado River Basin Tribes Partnership, also known as the Ten Tribes Partnership, created in 1992 by federally recognized tribes to strengthen tribal influence in water policy.

“Hopfully when the 2026 guidelines come out you’ll see tribes,” Williams said. 

Basin tribes hold water rights to about 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, which equates to about 25% of the river’s current average annual flow. That percentage will only increase as climate change continues to reduce the amount of water available to states with newer water rights. That water allocation makes Basin tribes a powerful force in negotiations, said Williams.

The Fort Mojave Tribe alone has the right to divert more than 136,000 acre feet, including 3,787 acres in Nevada.

However protecting the tribes’ water is about more than the raw acre feet they are entitled to, said Williams. It’s also about protecting the health of the land, including Avi Kwa Ame, or Spirit Mountain, a culturally significant area that’s part of the various tribes’ spiritual ideology and is featured in Mojave creation beliefs.

“We have to answer to our membership, we have to answer to our elders, we have to answer to our environment and ask if we are truly protecting it the best way we can,” Williams said. 

Forrest Cuch, a Ute Indian Tribe Elder and former director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said the Uinta River in Utah, once a major waterway to the Colorado River, has been reduced to a trickle over the years as a result of overuse. 

“In the Uinta Basin we have farmers plowing up lands that are not fit for production,” Cuch said. “They think it’s okay to make the desert bloom like a rose. That doesn’t sit well with Native people. We say the desert blooms on its own and if it were meant to be a lush green meadow it would be such and the desert is not such. ”

“Exploitation, extraction and development at all costs” has damaged the Colorado River, said Cuch, calling for a shift in culture that would protect the river.

“This knowledge comes from our strong spiritual connection to the land which is nurtured by our ceremonies that keep us earthbound and earth connected,” Cuch said. “In truth we have always been earth people that seem to find it necessary to stop the destruction of mother earth.” 

The call for inclusion from Colorado River Basin tribes on water policy comes after 20 tribes, including the Moapa Band of Paiutes in Southern Nevada, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last month asking the government to fulfill its “federal trust responsibility” and include tribes in river negotiations.

“Basin Tribes’ involvement in these ongoing decisions… is a necessity with regard to, and in recognition of, the impacts to Basin Tribes of the continuing drought and looming basin-wide shortages,” reads the letter.

Tribes argue they must be included in upcoming Colorado River policymaking negotiations to correct historical injustices. 

In the letter to Haaland, tribes say federal and state governments must recognize and include support for tribal access to clean water, tribal water rights settlements, tribal sovereignty, and provide tools that will help Basin Tribes to fully utilize their water rights. 

The Biden administration has pledged to work more closely with tribes during the upcoming negotiations, which are likely to happen over the next two years. During a trip to Nevada on Sunday Haaland said the federal government understands the importance of involving tribes in negotiations and discussions around water infrastructure and policymaking. 

“We have had many, many tribal consultations on this issue and many others,” Haaland said. “President Biden has made tribal consultation a priority in his administration. We are approaching these issues with an ‘all of government’ approach.”

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