Indian Water Is Life and the Droughts Threatening It


Harlan McKosato

Decades ago Native American tribal elders forewarned of a day when people would be fighting over water.

Droughts, contamination and over-consumption are making the elders’ prophecies come true. Perhaps sooner than predicted. But the biggest reason for an oncoming “megadrought” in the western U.S., according to scientists from NASA, Cornell and Columbia Universities, is climate change.

This team of top climate researchers stated in their recently released report Unprecedented 21st Century Drought Risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains, “In the Southwest and Central Plains of Western North America, climate change is expected to increase drought severity in the coming decades…leading to unprecedented drought conditions during the last millennium (1,000 years).”

“It’s very scary,” said Roger Fragua of the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico. “What the tribes are doing and what we have been doing since the beginning of time, if you think about the tribal migrations from a cultural standpoint, tribes have been really great at adaptation. Maybe we can’t stop these droughts, there’s just not a lot we can do about global climate change. What we can do is start preparing ourselves and our adaptation strategies.”

A recent strategy session held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, titled “Indian Water 2015” was a call to Indian country to help plan a national tribal water summit. The meeting consisted of dialog with tribal leaders and elders from throughout Indian country on important opportunities, challenges and tactics which will be the building blocks for the summit (which is scheduled to be held in Boulder, Colorado this fall) and a new national Indian water organization called Water Is Life.

“Indian water is life. Water is our lifeway to our cultural pasts as well as our futures,” explained Fragua, owner of Cota Holdings, LLC, a consulting firm specializing in tribal energy and natural resources. “We depend upon water for nearly every aspect of our lives. Indian water is equally as diverse as the number of Indians and tribes that depend upon it. The Northwest tribes consider water for their salmon habitat. The Great Lakes tribes just began moving national legislation to protect the Great Lakes.

“The Southwest Tribes depend on water for their crops and so on and so on,” added Fragua. “This water summit (in Boulder) will gather the diversity from all across Indian country in one place at one time to share stories of our past and our current realities. But most importantly, what is our common vision for our water futures?”

Tribes across the nation have made huge strides in the past several decades concerning their litigations and negotiations for water rights. Tribes have asserted their prior appropriations rights within the courts and with states, both individually and collectively.

“These extreme droughts that we’re facing are not helping any settlements – litigations and negotiations,” said Fragua, who previously worked at the National Tribal Environmental Council and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT). “But this organization is not only speaking about tribal water rights, we’re speaking about water quality standards and water conservation. It’s the whole package. It’s looking at water from a holistic basis – cultural, economic, political, and legal.”

Not only is climate change and drought threatening tribal water supplies, but there is also the issue of the commercialization of water. Corporations around the world, many of them concentrated here in the U.S, are looking to add water as one of their products. Many of their business plans call for privatizing water, even groundwater, and making people pay for it and removing water as a basic human right.

“When the rest of the world is talking about privatization, who actually owns the water?” asked Fragua. “It’s the tribes. Some tribes are actually talking about leasing strategies and how to move water into the marketplace. Especially in drought areas, that water is precious and there’s a real premium for that water. So tribes are looking at water as an economic opportunity. Now, tribes are going to have to wrestle with their own community and cultural boundaries between economics and culture.

Reuters reported that the scientists said their results point to a remarkably drier future, one that presents a substantial challenge and “falls far outside the contemporary experience of natural and human systems in Western North America.”

Future droughts will occur in a significantly warmer world, the study added, and conditions are likely to be a major added stress on both natural ecosystems and agriculture. There is an 80 percent chance of an extended drought between 2050 and 2099 unless aggressive steps are taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change, the article predicted.