Nearly half of Colorado River tribes have unresolved water rights claims. New agreements could change that

Tribal leaders gathered on April 22, 2024 to sign a historic Memorandum of Understanding. Photo courtesy of Lorelei Cloud.

The Colorado River provides water to more than 40 million people. The Basin includes 30 federally recognized Indian tribes and seven states (Colorado, Wyoming, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada). Tribal nations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have been left out of key agreements involving the Colorado River for well over a century now. In April, the Upper Colorado River Commission – that’s an agency at the nexus of many Colorado River discussions in the Upper Basin – voted to back a new proposed agreement that would make regular meetings with tribes be mandatory for the first time in the group’s 76-year history. 

Mira Barney is a Diné (Navajo) woman working at the National Wildlife Federation. She is also pursuing a graduate certificate in Environmental Justice at CU Boulder, and works as Program Assistance with Indigenous Women’s Leadership Network. She talked to individuals from one of the two federally-recognized tribes in the state of Colorado: Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

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    Untitled Jackie Sedley

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Jackie Sedley: You’re listening to The Morning Magazine on listener-supported KGNU. I’m Jackie Sedley. The Colorado River provides water to over 40 million people. The basin includes 30 federally recognized Indian tribes and 7 states, including Colorado, California, and Utah. Tribal nations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have been left out of key agreements involving the Colorado River for well over a century now. In April, the Upper Colorado River Commission, That’s an agency at the nexus of many Colorado River discussions in the Upper Basin, voted to back a new proposed agreement that would make regular meetings with tribes be mandatory for the first time in the group’s 76 year history. This led to a Memorandum of Understanding, also known as an MOU, between six Upper Basin tribes and the Upper Colorado River Commission. Mira Barney is a Navajo woman working at the National Wildlife Federation. She is also pursuing a graduate certificate in environmental justice at CU Boulder, and works as program assistant with Indigenous Women’s Leadership Network. She talked to individuals from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, one of the two federally recognized tribes in the state of Colorado.

Mira Barney: When Lisa Yellow Eagle grew up on the Navajo Reservation, she did not have access to running water.

Lisa Yellow Eagle: And so our family had to haul water, and you really learn the value of every drop of water that is used for your household, um, and for your animals.

Barney: Yellow Eagle is the Tribal Water Attorney for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. She understands firsthand how important access to water is.

Yellow Eagle: You know, it’s, I know that everyone says it, but I think we all know that water is life. It’s necessary for not only humans, but for all fish, plants, animals, Mother Earth herself.

Barney: Yellow Eagle highlights what every Coloradan can take into consideration when approaching discussions around established senior water rights of states and tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

Yellow Eagle: One, tribes are sovereign nations. Therefore should not be treated like any other water user. Two, Federal Indian reserve water rights cannot be lost, abandoned, or forfeited like a state water right can. And then three, tribal water rights are usually, like in a settlement, are negotiated for present. and future water rights. So this means that many tribes are not using their full quantification of water right now because they negotiated for that future water use for their future generations of tribal members. That future water allows time to grow into their water use as their tribe is growing as well.

Barney: Only 22 of the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin have recognized water rights, with the Southern Ute Indian Tribe being one of them. There are still 12 tribes in the basin that have unresolved water rights claims. That’s why recent conversations between tribes and the Upper Colorado River Commission, also known as the UCRC, are such a big deal.

Yellow Eagle: I think it’s been a really good experience to share information with the UCRC between the Upper Basin Tribes and have the UCRC share information with us. It’s, um, it’s also been a lot of hard work to build up that trust from the, from the beginning. Um, when we started these meetings, I think there was, um, Some mistrust because there have been many failed, um, attempts just with tribes in general and trying to, trying to work through, um, relationships. So this has been a really amazing opportunity and credit all of the tribal leadership and the commissioners for the four states on working on this and, and making this happen.

Barney: These meetings led to a Memorandum of Understanding, also known as an MOU, between six Upper Basin tribes and the Upper Colorado River Commission. This is historic as there has never been an MOU between Upper Basin Tribal Sovereign Nations and the states before. The six Upper Basin Tribes held a signing ceremony on April 22nd to all sign together. Celine Hawkins is the Colorado River Tribal Partnerships Program Director at the Nature Conservancy. She’s noticed a lot of new developments in the legislative space with Colorado tribes in the past few years.

Celine Hawkins: And I will also note that we have seen Colorado do new things of the legislative space with Colorado tribes. And one really exciting thing that happened last year is when the legislature convened the drought task force, tribal nations participated in the state legislative process and they asked for a separate tribal sub task force to be appointed and to be appointed jointly between the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and the tribal nations to focus on issues. That was part of the state legislative process. There was a tribal sub task force that I was appointed to that focused on tribal matters, and that allowed us to make sure that tribal information requests got back to the state legislature.

Barney:  This shift towards authentic and formalized collaboration makes Hawkins feel optimistic about the conversations between the state of Colorado and the tribes, especially as we approach the discussions around the 2026 interim guidelines.

Hawkins: We are hearing that we can’t get to a sustainable, durable Colorado River without thinking about the role of tribal water. So I am hopeful that in this round of negotiations, We can make progress on really understanding the role of tribal water and particularly undeveloped tribal water and the role that that’s playing in propping up the system and creating environmental flows and make sure that we’re creating more equitable programs where we’re looking at who we compensate for what in the basin. And we’re building solutions that are really going to work.

Barney: Colorado tribes are also optimistic of the changes being made and looking towards future discussions that allow tribes a seat at the table, such as discussions around the 2026 interim guidelines. Lorelei Cloud is the Vice Chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Lorelei Cloud: I would hope that tribes are right alongside the state commissioners voting on different aspects of the, the negotiations and that we do have a large say in what happens. You know, 10 out of 30 tribes have allocations of the river between 25 and 30%. That’s major. That’s more than any municipality. And so we have to be included in those conversations. When we’re negotiating the water, because we’ve been left out for over 100 years. Now it’s 102 years to this year in 2024. And so changing that that dynamic and making sure that we’re included. It has got to be a priority as we go forward. And so. I would hope that in after 2026. It’s normalized for tribes to be at those conversations. It’s normalized for us to be to be invited to conferences and to speak anywhere, you know, on water and that they know that we’re a valued part of the river system.

Barney: Giving tribes a seat at the table allows for a formalized role of communication and just collaboration. This diversity of perspectives allows for a more holistic discussion about our relationship to water within the Colorado River Basin as we interact with competing needs for water during a drought.

Cloud: This world has been created so that men, the patriarch, is the dominant. Force in, in just about everything. And now it’s been changing to be more matriarchal. You people were matriarchal by nature and it’s coming from a matriarchal system where we value women. We just don’t value water. ’cause we know water is sacred, but we also know, and we believe women are sacred and we value our women. And so elevating our other women into these different roles have been I think, uh, a challenge because you have to. Not just deal with your own people to get them to help them, but also the outside world, which doesn’t see us that way. And they always see us as being the dependent upon the government. And that’s not what we are. That’s not who we are.

Barney: Cloud highlights valuing shared connections and relationships to water for every recipient of Colorado River water.

Cloud: We prayed for the water. We prayed for the water that we didn’t have. We prayed for the water that we do have. And it’s still real today. That’s that concept is still today. We’re praying for the water that we do have and for the water that we don’t have. And hopefully the water that is going to be coming in the form of rain or snow, whatever that is, you know, there’s always that spiritual connection. And when you grew up in a Ute home, we always did all of our traditions and cultural activities. And so prayer was a big part of our daily activity and so was water. And so those two are always connected. And so when I think about praying, I always think about the water and that has to be, that’s ingrained in who you are as a body, not just your body is made up of water, but your soul as well too, because it’s connected.

Barney: For KGNU, I’m Mira Barney.

Sedley: Once again, that was Mira Barney speaking with members of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe about recent moves toward collaboration and water justice between tribes and state and federal governments.

Picture of Jackie Sedley

Jackie Sedley

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