Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West

But to use them, tribes often must negotiate settlements that need federal approval.

 

Tens of thousands of people on the Navajo Nation lack running water in their homes. But that could change in the coming years, as  goes into effect. It’s expected to deliver water to the reservation and nearby areas by 2024, as part of a , confirmed by Congress in 2009.

Survey work begins for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Three other Native water settlements . They arise from federal legal decisions recognizing that many tribes in the West hold water rights that largely pre-date — and therefore override — the water rights of non-Native settlers.

Many tribal nations are currently asserting those rights as a way to ensure economic vitality, affirm sovereignty and provide basic services that some communities lack. In many places, however, Native water rights have yet to be quantified, making them difficult to enforce. ; it’s cheaper, faster and less adversarial than a lawsuit, and can include funding for things like pipelines or treatment plants. With settlements, “the tribes are able to craft solutions that work for them and that can be more flexible than anything that could be achieved through litigation,” says Kate Hoover, a principal attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice water rights unit.

Once negotiations are complete, Congress has to confirm the settlements. Here are the three introduced in the Senate this session:

Pipes are laid for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation.
Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments

THE SETTLEMENT: 

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement allocates 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year from the Central Arizona Project to the 2,300-member Hualapai Nation. It also authorizes federal spending for a water pipeline to Peach Springs, the reservation’s main residential community, and , an economically important tourist destination featuring a horseshoe-shaped “skywalk” jutting out over the canyon.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: The legality of Native water rights settlements stems from a  involving agricultural irrigation. Winters v. United States established that when reservations were created, they included an implied right to water.

Subsequent legal decisions confirmed that so-called “reserved water” could also be used for . That’s crucial for this settlement, because the Hualapai Nation plans to use a portion of their water to expand Grand Canyon West — and their economy. “We have done everything possible to provide jobs and income to our people in order to lift them out of poverty — but the lack of a secure and replenishable water supply on our Reservation is our major obstacle to achieving economic self-sufficiency,” wrote Damon Clarke, chairman of the Hualapai Nation, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.


THE SETTLEMENT:

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement affirms the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre-feet of water each year — enough to serve about 160,000 households — from the Utah portion of the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary. In addition, it would establish funds for treating and transporting drinking water. 

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: In many Native water rights settlements, tribes agree to give up a portion of the water to which they’re entitled — often allowing other groups to continue using that water, which might otherwise have been cut off — in return for expensive water projects, typically built by a federal agency.

The Navajo Utah settlement is different: It would transfer money directly to the tribe for water infrastructure. During a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in December, Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, explained why the tribe, rather than the U.S. government, should lead the work: “It’s important as a sovereign nation that we are able to do that — employ our people, use our laws — in order to build and construct any kind of construction that may take place.”


THE SETTLEMENT:

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement confirms the right of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas to  in northeastern Kansas. It would be a milestone in resolving long-standing disagreements over how to ensure the tribe has reliable water, even during droughts. 

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Kansas, like much of the West, is prone to drought. This settlement would help the Kickapoo deal with dry periods by allowing the tribe to store more than 18,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that has yet to be built, but that has been . A dispute over how to acquire the private land that the reservoir would flood led to , and, eventually, to settlement negotiations, .

Experts say it’s not unusual for settlements to take years or even decades to complete, and that securing congressional approval requires balance. “Ultimately, these settlements are political instruments,” says Steven Moore, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and an advisor to the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. “You really have to work these settlements out so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at NewTowncarShare News

NewTowncarShare News Classifieds
  • The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) seeks a director to lead a nationwide program focused on the protection of U.S. national parks from energy development...
  • Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • Crested Butte Land Trust seeks a development director to lead its fundraising efforts. Remote and unspoiled, Crested Butte is located in one of the Rockies...
  • 5-Acre Home Site, Great Views with Spectacular Sunsets From a South Facing Home Site. Excellent for Passive Solar Design. Covenants, No HOA. Keller Williams Co....
  • 3 bed/2 bath, detached strawbale building. 11.7 acres, barn, corrals, fenced. Wells, solar panels, greenhouses. Paved access. 575-535-2568.
  • WildEarth Guardians seeks two public interest-focused staff attorneys with a minimum of 5 years experience to join our legal team. Experience with at least some...
  • The New Mexico Wildlife Federation is seeking an Executive Director, a visionary leader who is passionate about public lands, dedicated to executing an innovative strategic...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS Customer Service Specialist I General Statement of Duties: Works closely with the customer service manager performing high-volume routine computer database work. Also...
  • The Aravaipa Land Steward coordinates preserve stewardship work and general operations including maintenance and general preserve management. Implements preserve management plans, which may include species...
  • seeks a talented and dynamic development professional, with a passion for protecting our natural environment, to lead our development and fundraising team.
  • The Native American Fish and Wildlife Society seeks an Executive Director in Denver, CO to serve as the Chief Administrator of the national Native American...
  • NewTowncarShare News seeks a development assistant to assist with fundraising campaigns. HCN is an award-winning, national news magazine. Strong candidates will have experience administering...
  • Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • 4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • 5 acres, well. Abuts Carson NF; hike fish ski; deer turkey elk.