Our thanks to Rachel Monroe:
How Native Americans Will Shape the Future of Water in the West
Tribal nations hold the rights to significant portions of the Colorado River. In the increasing drought, some are showing the way to sustainability.
As a child, Stephen Lewis heard stories about a river that, for the most part, no longer flowed. “How I grew up was that it was a theft, that it was stolen from us,” he told me late last year. “There was what we used to call the Mighty Gila River, and now it was just pretty much dry. There was no water.”
Lewis is the governor of the Gila River Indian Community (gric), a group that has occupied land south of Phoenix for centuries. When I met him, in the dining room of the Whirlwind Golf Club, which the tribe owns, Lewis had recently returned from Santa Fe. There, he’d attended a celebration marking the centennial of the Colorado River Compact, an agreement that continues to shape water politics in the Southwest. In Santa Fe, Lewis took note of a black-and-white photograph of the compact’s signers—white men in dark jackets, gathered around a wooden desk.
In the United States, water law is founded on the principle of “first in time, first in right”—whoever first put water to “beneficial use” can claim the right to use it now and in the future. In the 1922 compact, though, tribal nations are mentioned only in passing. “The Colorado River Compact basically just assumed that tribes were going to go away, the United States was going to figure it out, nobody had to care,” Jay Weiner, a tribal attorney from Montana, told me. Instead, in recent years, as the worst drought in more than a thousand years has seized the Southwest, the region’s tribal nations have been asserting their legal rights to the contentious, increasingly scarce commodity of water. In 2004, gric signed an agreement with the federal government that gave them the right to more than six hundred and fifty thousand acre-feet of water, much of it from the Colorado River. The settlement made gric one of the largest rights holders of Colorado River water in Arizona; the community controls more of the river’s water than the state of Nevada. Tribal nations could soon hold the legal right to about twenty per cent of the Colorado River’s flow, including unresolved claims. (Some Southwestern tribes have yet to come to an official agreement over their water entitlements.)
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