Hopi Tribe trial to adjudicate water rights begins

Water rights have been a contentious issue with many of Arizona’s Native American tribes, which often rely on shared water sources for their crops. (Photo by Tayler Brown/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The first in a series of trials looking at water rights for the Hopi Tribe starts on Tuesday, but experts close to the case expect the results to take a while.

The case that begins Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court involves the tribe’s past and present uses of water in the Little Colorado River Basin.

“The court is required to study the tribe, understand its history (and) culture, and make a determination what water is necessary for the tribe to have a permanent and livable homeland,” said Colin Campbell, an attorney representing the tribe.

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A trial to look at future water uses will start in December 2019. A third trial examining ranch lands to the south of the Hopi Reservation will start in 2020 at the earliest.

The Hopi reservation is spread across three mesas in northeastern Arizona and circled by the much larger Navajo Nation.

These proceedings are part of the General Stream Adjudication process that’s been going for decades.

On a parallel track are possible settlement talks between the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation and the federal government. Negotiations have started and stopped over the years. Campbell said that in the last month, the federal Indian Water Rights Office started exploring a new attempt at a settlement.

He said that having Jon Kyl back in the U.S. Senate may help, because any settlement would require federal legislative action. Kyl worked on Native American water rights settlements during his previous stint in the Senate.

“I think having a senator who’s knowledgeable about the issues is a reason for hope,” Campbell said.

Kyl’s ability to push legislation from the inside would depend on how long he stays in the Senate. Kyl is filling the seat of the late Sen. John McCain and has promised to stay only through the end of the current Congress.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

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