Native American tribes’ water rights in the Colorado River crisis

This story is one part of a broader series about ways to save water from the drying Colorado River. See the full project here.

Thirty Native American tribes depend on the Colorado River and collectively they own the rights to as much as 30% of its waters.

Many of those rights amount to “paper water,” however, Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said. Meaning, they own the water on paper but don’t have access to it.

Either the rights haven’t been legally quantified and cemented or the water is designated for one use (agriculture, for example) and can’t be used for another (drinking water) or there’s no infrastructure in place to give tribes physical access to it, Heart said.

So much of that water flows downstream, padding the Colorado River’s dangerously low reservoirs and leaving tribes uncompensated for the precious resource.

The scenario is a continuation of the historic inequities forced upon Native Americans by state and federal governments, Heart said. Whatever water his tribe – which spans across Colorado, New Mexico and Utah – has the rights to, pales in comparison to the Ute’s native territories and access.

“Where’s our water right for the land that was taken away from us? How come we just get a drop in the bucket?” Heart said. “The federal government’s still got their thumb on us.”

Heart said he continues to be frustrated by state and federal governments negotiating changes along the Colorado River and all too often the tribes are left out of the conversation. His sentiment was echoed by several other tribal officials during the Colorado River Water Users Association convention in Las Vegas.

Government officials should be doing whatever they can to settle tribal water rights, John Berggren, a water policy analyst for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, said. If they can work together, some of those tribal waters could then become a supply stream into the dwindling river.

Say a tribe has the rights to 500,000 acre-feet, Berggren said as an example. If state and federal officials can help cement those rights and help the tribe access its water then “maybe they only need 250,000 acre-feet,” he said.

Tribal officials could use that water to provide much-needed clean drinking water to their people, water their crops and grow their communities. Meanwhile, whatever water the tribe didn’t need could be sold or leased to state or federal governments and used to prop up levels at lakes Powell and Mead.

“It’s a win-win,” Berggren said.

Estevan López, the Upper Colorado River Compact Commissioner for New Mexico, said his state has had success working with the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla-Apache Tribe, but other negotiations remain in the early stages.

“A decade ago I hadn’t even realized the Ute Mountain Utes had a claim in New Mexico,” he said.

López acknowledged that many tribes lose water downstream and aren’t compensated for it, though they should be. Whatever water the sovereign nations have to spare once their rights are settled would be an asset to the Colorado River system, he said.

But some tribes, like Heart’s, might not have water to spare, instead they need the few dozen acre-feet they have the rights to so they can shore up and grow their communities.

“I want my full allocation,” Heart said. “I want all the water I need for my tribe. Our population is growing, our needs are growing.”

Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe in northeast Utah, is in a different position. His tribe has the rights to 500,000 acre-feet, though they haven’t legally been settled. That water has been flowing downstream for years and the tribe hasn’t been compensated for any of it, he said.

Should government officials finally settle the Ute Indian Tribe’s rights, Chapoose said he’d be open to leasing that water back into the system so it could help support the basin.

“I’m not against people using my water, I just don’t think they should be using it for free,” he said.

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