Western tribes push for a larger 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, a large portion of the water savings came through agreements with two Native tribes.
Indigenous leaders have also been invited by the Biden administration to play a key role in future negotiations on coping with shortages.
The rising involvement of tribes in discussions about managing the West’s scarce water supplies marks a dramatic turn in a century-long history of being left on the sidelines.
“We see ourselves as really a leader in this,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, whose reservation lies south of Phoenix. “This is part of our value system to conserve water when we can. And we see this even as a moral obligation.”
Lewis is part of a growing movement pushing for Native communities to have a bigger say in decisions about the river, which sustains cities and farms across the West but faces chronic overuse and diminishing snowpack in its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains.
A motor home is dwarfed by the monumental size of the Hoover Dam near Boulder City.
A “bathtub ring” of white rocks on the surrounding landscape at the Hoover Dam shows how much water levels have dropped in Lake Mead, the vast Colorado River 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 Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last month saying tribes have an “essential role” to play in upcoming negotiations for dealing with shortages after 2026, when the current rules expire.
They told Haaland, the country’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary, that they must be at the table alongside the seven states that rely on the river.
“Basin Tribes hold water rights to approximately 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, which equates to about 25% of the river’s current average annual flow,” their letter explained. “This percentage will only increase as climate change continues to diminish overall runoff amounts 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 water rights claims and serious water infrastructure deficiencies. On the Navajo Nation, for example, an estimated 30% or more of people live in homes without running water.
Other tribes have secured water rights settlements but have as yet been unable to fully develop and use their rights to 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 tribal water rights settlements as well as allow tribes to market their water outside their reservations and be compensated for dedicating unused water to boost reservoirs.
Boats float on Lake Powell
A white ring surrounding Lake Powell shows the decline in water levels.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Haaland responded in a letter to the tribes, saying she is “committed to bringing Tribal voices and Tribal perspectives to everyday decisions” by the federal government, including decisions about managing water.
Haaland said she will hold a “listening session” in early 2022 to hear from tribes in the Colorado River Basin.
Lewis said the response from the federal government represents a “night and day” shift from the past: “It’s such a dramatic change for 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 system of allocating water from the river, didn’t apply to tribes.
And when the latest guidelines for managing the river were negotiated in 2007, tribes weren’t included either.
“I think with the promises that this administration has made, and the appointments that they’ve made, absolutely stars are aligning in terms of our ability to actually forge something and transform the basin,” said Vigil.
Tree stumps jut out of the ground in the Nevada ghost town of St. Thomas.
St. Thomas, Nev., in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, was abandoned when the water rose behind the Hoover Dam to form Lake Mead. However, ruins of the town have resurfaced as water levels have dropped in the vast Colorado River reservoir.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)
Under the water-saving agreement signed this month, the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes will together conserve about 134,000 acre-feet of water next year — more than a quarter of the 500,000 acre-feet that the three states have pledged to leave in Lake Mead.
The Gila River community will receive about $30 million for its portion of the water next year. The community plans to leave some reservation farmland dry and fallow and to contribute water that would otherwise have been stored or put on the market in Arizona.
Lewis signed the agreement alongside Chairwoman Amelia Flores of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation straddles the river in Arizona and California.
“The Colorado River has sustained us for many, many generations,” Flores said during the signing ceremony. “It is time for all of us to help save this river.”
The two tribes made a similar deal in 2019 as part of Arizona’s piece of a drought plan. When that agreement was sealed in a ceremony on a terrace overlooking Hoover Dam, representatives of the seven states did the signing.
A fisherman sets up on the banks of the Colorado River
A fisherman sets up on the banks of the Colorado River as it cuts through the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon.
Twelve months ago, Americans could indulge in optimism. For a bright, shining moment, 2021 promised to be a year of recovery.
The first vaccines for COVID-19 were going into health workers’ arms. The economy was climbing out of recession. And after a bruising campaign, a new president promised a return to calm.
I shared the high hopes.
“Joe Biden … is 78 years old, and he has been a politician for more than 50 years. Those qualifications may be his hidden superpowers,” I wrote. “Improbable as it sounds, this politician of modest talents and limited eloquence may have exactly the gifts he needs to succeed.”
What could go wrong? Plenty.
The pandemic didn’t end. The economy boomed, but inflation surged. And while Biden restored a dose of normality to politics, voters didn’t feel it. By the end of the year, his approval rating dropped to 43%, the worst first-year report card for any recent president except, of course, Donald Trump.
We in the media are often accused of focusing on bad news. In 2021, I erred in the other direction: I was too optimistic.
This year-end column is my annual exercise in humility — a look back at what I got wrong.
Let’s start with the most disruptive problem of the year, the pandemic.
A year ago, vaccines looked like a good bet to bring COVID-19 under control.
Too many people were hesitating to get the shot — but no worries, I wrote: Governors were rolling out inducements including free beer and prizes to persuade them. “It turns out that what really motivates people is the chance to strike it rich,” I wrote.
Wrong. I didn’t expect that roughly 15% of adults, mostly white Republicans, would persist in refusing vaccination. Their resistance makes it harder for all of us to reach herd immunity — the point at which the virus stops spreading.