Water is Life: It’s Time

Daryl Vigil

Daryl Vigil

Jicarilla Apache, Jemez Pueblo, and Zia Pueblo

Tribes have thousands of years of historical and cultural connection to water. For us, water is life. It not only sustains us, it is sacred to our people. Native people are keepers of the river and we will continue to advocate for its health and well-being.

If you’re not familiar with tribal water in the Colorado River Basin, you’re not alone. Tribes have been conspicuously left out of Colorado River media coverage and key decision-making discussions, with little mention of our current use and how ongoing tribal water development will impact everyone dependent on the Colorado River. While tribal communities retain some of the most senior water rights in the Colorado River Basin, our rights are often the most overlooked.

In 1992, ten tribes came together to form the Colorado River Ten Tribes Partnership (TTP) to raise our voices and claim our seat at the table in determining future Colorado River water use and management. Today, we collectively have water rights to nearly 2.8 million acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River and its tributaries, nearly 20 percent of the river’s natural flow. Partnership tribes have so far developed roughly half of their water rights, leaving 1.4 million acre-feet of tribal water yet to be developed. However, this water does not go unused—it is used by others across the basin for agriculture, irrigation, commercial and municipal needs, and drinking water.

Over the past 19 years, drought in the Colorado River Basin has exacerbated an ongoing problem: demand in the Colorado River Basin far outstrips supply. And this reality will be further complicated as tribes move toward full development of our water rights.

Historically, the 29 federally-recognized tribes of the Colorado River Basin haven’t had the opportunity to directly participate in policy discussions shaping the river’s management. But in recent years, tribes have channeled their historic marginalization into a catalyst for inclusion. The impacts are readily apparent. The 2018 Tribal Water Study has highlighted the leadership role tribes play in managing and protecting the river. From 2015 to 2017, the Navajo Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation, Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) and Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) all participated in the System Conservation Pilot Program to increase the amount of water stored in Lake Mead. And in the last year, CRIT and GRIC were critical partners in the development of the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan.

Under the DCP, the lower Colorado River basin states, including Arizona, may voluntarily leave water in Lake Mead to prevent the Lake from dropping to critical levels. CRIT agreed to fallow previously farmed reservation lands to contribute 150,000-acre feet over three years to help this effort.

Recent examples of successful tribal engagement and water conservation begs the question: if tribes had been included earlier and more often, how would things be different now?

Tribes have unique expertise and perspective, drawn from thousands of years on the river that should be brought to bear in addressing water conservation. And our priorities mirror those of so many people throughout the basin: providing economic development for our reservations and our members, ensuring water quality, supporting healthy flows, supporting wildlife habitat, conserving endangered species, and ensuring the availability of water for cultural purposes.

Given the substantial stakes our tribes have along the Colorado River, tribes must be recognized as critical players in decision-making about the Colorado River – including the upcoming negotiations for new operational guidelines. Ensuring equitable future river management requires broad-based collaboration where all stakeholders have seats at the table. The federal government has a trust responsibility to account for tribal cultural and environmental priorities. We plan to work with other tribes, federal and state natural resource agencies, water managers, local communities, and recreational industries to confront the water challenges we all face along the Colorado River. The stakes are too high to ignore and the fate of future generations relies on a commitment to collaborative action. 

Daryl Vigil is Jicarilla Apache, Jemez Pueblo, and Zia Pueblo. He serves as the co-director of Water & Tribes in the Colorado River Basin, Interim Executive Director of the Ten Tribes Partnership, and has been the Water Administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation for more than 10 years.