In southwestern Colorado, multiple years of hot and dry conditions have drained many of our reservoirs. This year we expect that a section of the Pine River, which runs through the heart of the Southern Ute Reservation, will run completely dry due to dry conditions and irrigation diversions by Tribal and non-Tribal irrigators.
Unfortunately, what’s happening with the Pine River is becoming all too common across the Colorado River Basin and the West. Scientists have concluded that the ongoing severe drought conditions we’re facing are primarily due to climate change. And we’re already feeling it in the Upper Basin as Lake Powell reaches unprecedentedly low levels – critical enough that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation recently called for a first-ever reduction in mid-year water deliveries out of the reservoir by nearly a million acre feet during this water year.
The future of hotter, drier conditions has arrived. We must immediately accelerate the pace and scale of collaborative solutions to secure sustainable water supplies for communities and wildlife across the Upper Basin.
We need to address the imbalance between supply and demand – an imbalance that has existed historically in the Colorado River Basin and is being exacerbated by climate change – and work together to build a more climate resilient future. This means we need to put aside differences and find common ground with all water users. And that must start with recognizing the role that Tribal Nations will need to play in shaping the future of the river. Respectfully engaging Tribal Nations is essential to create more effective, durable, and equitable solutions to the river’s toughest challenges.
Tribal Nations are sovereign nations that hold water rights to more than 3 million acre-feet of Colorado River water, which equates to about 25% of the river’s current average annual flow. Tribal water rights also hold the potential to be a fundamental part of the solution for the Colorado River: meeting demand, supporting conservation, river health, and watershed health.
Having served as stewards of the lands and waters of the Upper Basin for millennia, Tribal Nations are among the most important leaders and partners in efforts to find lasting solutions to the water scarcity and ecological challenges facing the Colorado River. Native peoples believe that each and every person has a spirit, as do other living beings such as plants, animals, air, dirt and soil, and water. Water is an instrumental part of Tribal prayers and ceremonies and Tribal members maintain a relationship with it. When that relationship disappears, so does life itself.
Additionally, the federal government has an inherent trust responsibility to Tribal Nations and is obligated to support their right to self-determination as well as their economic prosperity. The federal trust responsibility also requires that the United States ensure Tribal Nations are included in rulemaking that will govern the Colorado River’s management. However, they have historically been left out of the conversation, and this needs to change.
That’s why it was a huge step forward when recently, six Tribal Nations and 10 conservation groups working in the Upper Basin, including the Southern Ute and The Nature Conservancy, came together through a working group to develop a shared vision for what the river’s future could look like. That vision includes the need to promote and support the sustainable, resilient use of the Colorado River and its tributaries for people and the rest of nature; ensure the spiritual, cultural, and ecological integrity of the Colorado River Basin while providing water for Tribal homelands and other human use; and incorporate the realities of drought and climate change, among other priorities. This type of collaboration allows for challenging conversations that are urgently needed to plan for a future with less water.
We’ve already seen the benefits of this kind of increased collaboration. Earlier this year, the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission, and The Nature Conservancy signed an agreement that allows the NMISC to lease up to 20,000-acre feet of water from the Jicarilla Apache Nation to benefit threatened, endangered, and sensitive fish and increase water security for New Mexico. This agreement demonstrates how Tribal Nations and state governments can work on a sovereign-to-sovereign basis – with support from conservation organizations – to find collaborative solutions that benefit multiple interests and users.
This innovative water sharing project offers a promising example for water sustainability within the Colorado River Basin and demonstrates that the Colorado River Basin’s Tribal Nations are important leaders and partners in crafting transformative water solutions across the West. With other collaborations coming together in Colorado and Utah, we are seeing promising steps forward in securing our collective water future.
With that in mind, we call on federal and state decision makers to fully respect Tribal Nations’ role in the future of the Colorado River. This also means recognizing Tribes as sovereign governments on equal footing with the Basin States, with the full authority to govern themselves and their respective water rights, rather than as a stakeholder group of water users.
Every human should respect the means the Creator gave us to sustain life, including the water that we all value. Water truly is the essence of life, and we all have a role to play in helping to protect it. Communities throughout the Upper Basin already are grappling with water shortage issues that will affect our children and grandchildren in the years to come. If we want to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Colorado River, Tribal Nations’ leadership must be at the center.
To tackle these challenges with the holistic solutions needed, the time to fully integrate Tribes into decision making about the river’s future is now.
Celene Hawkins, of Durango, is the Colorado and Colorado River Tribal Engagement Program director for The Nature Conservancy. Lorelei Cloud, of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, serves as Council Member for the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council.