Historically left out of Western water talks, tribes intend to have greater influence in future

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis was a vocal proponent of Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

A canal carries Colorado River water to farmland near Poston, owned and operated by the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a key player in Arizona’s completion of the Drought Contingency Plan. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

GREELEY, Colo. – Earlier this year, Arizona, one of seven states that rely on the Colorado River, was in the midst of a heated discussion about Colorado River water.

“It’s time to protect Lake Mead and Arizona,” Doug Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, said in his state of the state address in January 2019. He spoke to state lawmakers in the midst of uncomfortable, emotional discussions about who gets access to water in the arid West and who doesn’t.

“It’s time to ratify the Drought Contingency Plan,” Ducey said to applause.

The multistate deal was the first issue Ducey brought up in his address, and he indicated it should be the Legislature’s first priority. The deal was designed to keep the Colorado River’s largest reservoir – Lake Mead south of Las Vegas – from dropping rapidly and putting the region’s 40 million residents in a precarious position.

Within weeks, Arizona finished its portion of the plan.

Ducey’s address lauded the leadership of former Gov. Bruce Babbitt and former Sen. Jon Kyl, but he didn’t mention the crucial role of tribal leaders in the state. But a recent Arizona State University report suggests that without the actions of the Gila River Indian Community and the Colorado River Indian Tribes, the deal would’ve likely collapsed.

“We know that you have to live in harmony with your surrounding community, with the water resources, you have to respect that,” Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said after Ducey’s address.

To get the deal across the finish line, Lewis’ tribe agreed to lease a portion of its water to the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District, which supplies water for new homebuilding in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. The Colorado River Indian Tribes agreed to fallow cropland on its reservation, which spans the Arizona-California line south of Lake Havasu City, leaving the unused water in Lake Mead.

“This is a legacy, history making moment for all of Arizona,” Lewis said.

Arizona’s portion of the seven-state Drought Contingency Plan became a unique example in the vast Colorado River Basin of tribal leaders asserting themselves in broader discussions about the river’s management. Historically, tribes in the basin have been marginalized and ignored, left out or outright banned from discussions of Western water development.

With the drought plan done, some tribal leaders say their water rights can no longer be ignored, and that it’s irresponsible of Western water leaders to leave them out of sweeping multistate agreements. And a recently finished federal study is amplifying tribes’ call for a seat at the table to negotiate the river’s future.

“Early on, five years ago, the tribes didn’t think, ‘Well, how do we participate in this process?'” said Daryl Vigil of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico, acting director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, an organization that represents the interests of 10 tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

“But, I think given the … senior nature of tribal water rights, they absolutely needed to be involved in that process.”

In December 2018, the federal government released the Tribal Water Study, which looked at water use within tribes and projected future demands. One big takeaway from the report gained attention across the Southwest: On paper, tribes have rights to about 20% of all the water in the Colorado River watershed. Tribes aren’t using all the water they have rights to, but they plan to, Vigil said, which will have ripple effects throughout the entire watershed.

“That has to be resolved,” he said, “Because if we put that water to full development, tribal water to full development in the Upper Basin, that will absolutely impact somebody in the Lower

Selwyn Whiteskunk of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe wants to see Native Americans given more flexibility in how they lease and market water in the Colorado River Basin. (Photo by Luke Runyon/KUNC)

The river’s current managing guidelines – which dictate how its biggest reservoirs are run and a series of cutbacks when they drop in elevation – were approved in 2007 and are set to expire in 2026. Against the backdrop of rising temperatures and two decades of drought across much of the Southwest, formal negotiations to come up with a new agreement start next year.

Interested parties, including state leaders, water agencies, farm groups, environmentalists and recreational interests, already are posturing. Right after the Drought Contingency Plan was inked in May, the arguments began about what and who should be included in those guideline negotiations and what and who should be left out.

Celene Hawkins, who heads up the Nature Conservancy’s work on tribal water issues in the Colorado basin, said while tribes were largely left out of the negotiating process that led to the 2007 guidelines, the tone is different now. (The Nature Conservancy receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also supports KUNC’s Colorado River coverage)

“I am hearing more conversation throughout the basin about tribal inclusion in the process,” Hawkins said. “I don’t know how it’s going to look yet, but there seems to be a commitment to doing better by having the tribal voices at the table this time.”

When the tribes show up to negotiate, they’ll be entering the room with some of the most senior water rights in the basin, which comes with their own level of value and power. Selwyn Whiteskunk, who manages water issues for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in southern Colorado, said he plans to push for more flexibility in the tribe’s water rights portfolio.

“This is an opportunity,” he said. “You want to grasp those opportunities.”

A settlement agreement currently limits how the tribe can market and lease its water, Whiteskunk said. He’d like to see a deal that would give his tribe the ability to work with the West’s fast-growing cities, particularly in the river’s Upper Basin, and solve some of the region’s water scarcity woes. But that door is closed right now, he said.

He sees the Gila River Indian Community and other Arizona tribes as part of a multistate deal to share water.

“They’re they’re helping the city of Phoenix. They’re helping the city of Tucson,” Whiteskunk said. “Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we help the city of Salt Lake? The city of Albuquerque?

“As a sovereign nation, we should have that ability to do that.”

Whiteskunk said the message to other water users in the West is simple.

“We want our full allocation. We want our water. We want to utilize it,” he said.

That’s a message tribal leaders are hoping sinks in: Tribes aren’t using all the water they have rights to now, but it won’t stay that way forever.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by public media station KUNC in northern Colorado, with support from the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

KJZZ’s Bret Jaspers contributed to this report.