Tribes actively pursue increased participation in discussions addressing Colorado River water crisis

As the federal government commences negotiations for the long-term management of the heavily-utilized Colorado River, tribal leaders are advocating for increased participation in these discussions. The 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin hold rights to approximately one-fourth of the river’s average supply. However, throughout the past century, tribal nations have largely been excluded from regional talks concerning river management. Only recently have they started to assume a more significant role. Tribal leaders argue that they are still being left out of crucial talks between state and federal officials and are demanding inclusion in the development of new rules for dealing with shortages after 2026. These new rules will replace the current guidelines set to expire by the end of 2026.

Governor Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona expressed frustration over the lack of tribal involvement in decision-making processes. He stated that tribal leaders were often informed about discussions and decisions after they had taken place, which sparked their dissatisfaction, particularly as they look toward the future beyond 2026. The Interior Department has initiated the process of developing new long-term rules for operating reservoirs and allocating water during shortages. This sets the stage for challenging negotiations to address the chronic overuse and the impact of global warming on the river’s flow across seven states, including cities, farming regions, and tribes.

Governor Lewis and other tribal leaders are advocating for the federal government to include representatives from the 30 tribes in meetings with all seven states during the upcoming talks. Lewis clarified that this approach wouldn’t hinder state representatives from meeting internally. He emphasized the commitment made by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to include tribes in the highest-level decision-making processes. The Gila River Indian Community, which holds a significant water entitlement, has agreed to leave a portion of its water in Lake Mead while receiving financial support from the federal government. They are also collaborating on projects to expand water reuse with a reclaimed water pipeline and cover canals with solar panels.

In developing new rules, the Interior Department plans to engage in robust collaboration with the seven states, tribes, other stakeholders, and Mexico. To initiate the process, the department published a notice in the Federal Register, outlining its plan to conduct an environmental impact statement. The aim is to develop guidelines and strategies that are resilient and adaptable to future conditions, including drought and low reservoir levels. The Interior Department and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will accept public comments on potential changes to the existing rules until August 15. Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau highlighted the Biden administration’s commitment to working with states, tribes, and communities in the face of climate change and drought. Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton stressed the importance of an inclusive, science-based decision-making process that starts promptly.

The Colorado River is experiencing record-low levels in its largest reservoirs, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, due to drought exacerbated by climate change. The river’s flow has decreased by approximately 20% compared to pre-2000 averages. While recent storms have brought a significant snowpack to the Rocky Mountains, boosting reservoir levels, there are concerns about the long-term impact of continuing drought and aridification. Addressing the water deficit and finding sustainable solutions will present substantial challenges.

The historical exclusion of Indigenous peoples from decision-making processes regarding the river goes back to the signing of a 1922 compact that divided the water among the states. However, tribal leaders argue that they should now have a seat at the table, as they can provide valuable perspectives and contribute to reevaluating the region’s relationship with the river. Representatives of the Quechan Tribe and the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe stressed the spiritual and cultural significance of the river and the need to protect it. They called for tribes to be included in discussions and the consideration of sustainability and solutions. Despite seeking greater involvement, many tribes still struggle to secure water rights and necessary infrastructure to meet the needs of their communities.

 

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