Indigenous Water Rights in the Western Drought

Indigenous Water Rights water rights

For 40 million people living in the Western US, the Colorado River basin is their source of water supply and last month, the federal government declared a water shortage on the river for the first time. Within the basin, Thirty Native tribes have recognized rights to more than one-fifth of the entire supply, but some tribes are still trying to resolve their claims to water. Even among those whose rights have been recognized, "some face significant barriers to fully using their water, including a lack of necessary infrastructure, funding challenges, and limited legal options to put their water to use outside their reservations through leases or other arrangements," Grist reports.

Why This Matters

Climate change-fueled heat and drought have made water rights issues increasingly important in the West. Last month's water shortage declaration primarily impacted Arizona farmers, but as soon as 2023, some tribes could see cutbacks. Even without cuts, tribes already face challenges with essential water infrastructure. And declining flows, connected back to snowmelt in the Rockies, could push the basin into uncharted territory: the basin’s Drought Contingency Plan doesn't map out what happens if the Lake Mead reservoir falls below 1,025 feet. And according to projections, there’s a 66% chance the reservoir will dip that low in the next five years.

As Bidtah Becker, an associate attorney with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority told Grist:

We've created these systems where people pay money, and they get a service. But maybe what Mother Nature is saying to us is that, when it comes to something like water, we need to shift our approach so that people understand exactly where their water is coming from and understand their role in protecting the most precious resource we have.

Mapping the Colorado River

The basin's water management is complex, but thanks to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, you can explore an interactive map of the Colorado River, which they've dubbed "the hardest working river in the West." Commonly used regional maps aren't always consistent with each other, and "most haven't kept up with changing realities -- like the fact that the overtapped waterway no longer reaches its outlet at the sea," the creators write in their introduction. The finished interactive map includes a complete list of tribes with federal water rights and whether they are fully litigated or in settlement.

ABC: Native American tribes plea for help as Colorado River dries up, October 6, 2021.

TED: Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans | Kelsey Leonard, January 14, 2020.