‘A 100-year tragedy’ for tribes in the Colorado River Basin
The Colorado River Basin is home to 30 tribal nations — despite having senior water rights, there are still many tribal communities without running water
On the Navajo Nation, something as simple a frozen hose can be a barrier to having water to drink, a reality that Melcita Stanley dealt with on a chilly November morning as she pulled her truck up to a free well outside of Monument Valley.
She tried tightening the hose clamp, but the water pressure couldn’t push the ice out. She grabbed a steel pipewrench from her truck and beat the frozen section, but it was still clogged. She detached it and smacked it on the pavement, to no avail. Finally, she called her cousin, who, luckily, arrived a few minutes later with his own hose.
Editor’s note: For 100 years, the Colorado River Compact has governed management and distribution of the Colorado River. But a century of population growth, drought and climate change has taken its toll, reducing the river to alarming levels that threaten our way of life. The Deseret News examined the state of the Colorado River in a series of stories and images that tell the tale of an essential environmental artery in trouble. Read all of our stories at deseret.com/colorado-river.
“That’s what we have to deal with,” she said later that afternoon, speaking from her small ranch a few miles south of the Utah-Arizona state line where she hauls water for 15 horses, seven cows, a handful of dogs, dozens of chickens, sheep, goats and a single rabbit.
You’ll find Stanley at the well most evenings, filling up a 200-gallon container that will serve as her own drinking water. But she always makes a point to haul water for her livestock first. “Our animals need it more than us, that’s how I see it. They’re medicine,” she said.
At nearly 17 million acres, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the U.S., stretched out across parts of Utah, New Mexico and mostly Arizona. And despite the Colorado River and several of its major tributaries running along the reservation’s northern, western and southern borders, somewhere between 30% to 40% of its residents still lack access to running water.
‘A 100-year tragedy’
The Colorado River Compact, the river’s governing document which allocates water among the basin’s seven states and Mexico, was drafted and signed in 1922. Now, exactly 100 years later, incoming Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren wants to know, “Has it worked?”
It depends on who you ask. The document has certainly withstood the test of time, maintaining a level of stability for the basin states and Mexico amid a historic drought and population boom.
But for Nygren, who in January will become president of a tribal nation where thousands of its residents lack access to drinking water, it’s hard to look at the Colorado River Compact as a success.
“It’s 100 years old ... but there’s so many people in Kayenta and Monument Valley area who don’t have water. And that’s just one area — you go along the whole northern border of the Navajo Nation and you’re going to get more examples of that,” said Nygren. “So to me, it probably needs to be updated.”
When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922, Nygren’s great-grandparents, like most Native Americans, weren’t allowed to vote. The federal government’s policy toward the tribes still favored forced assimilation, and for decades to come Native American children were shipped off to boarding schools against their will. “Posey’s War,” considered the last armed Indigenous uprising, ended a few months after the compact was signed, resulting in a large group of uninvolved, mostly Paiute and Ute people being held in a squalid concentration camp in Blanding, Utah.
“There was a lot that was very traumatic to Navajo people back then,” said Nygren.
The compact gave no consideration to the 30 tribes living in the basin, referenced once in the document’s Article VII, demeaningly nicknamed the “Wild Indian Article” by former President Herbert Hoover.
“Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes,” the article reads, in its entirety.
“That set a pattern that was followed by lawmakers at the federal level and especially the state level, for 100 years,” said Dan McCool, an author and professor emeritus at the University of Utah, who researches tribal water rights.
For the next century, an incredible juxtaposition took place in the Colorado River Basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation would spend billions on water infrastructure, building pipelines, irrigating millions of acres and completing the Hoover and Glen Canyon dams, at the time some of the world’s most magnificent feats of engineering. It supported a new wave of westward expansion as cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Denver and Salt Lake City exploded in size. Over 40 million people would come to rely on the river.
The U.S. government used the Colorado River to bring the comforts of the 21st century to the arid southwest, and its infrastructure became a symbol of American might and ingenuity — little of which was extended to the tribes in the basin.
The Bureau of Reclamation received decades of generous funding, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs, largely responsible for tribal water infrastructure projects, “was never funded to the point where it would actually be successful,” said McCool.
And today, thousands of people living on Indian reservations remain stuck in time. Despite over 100 years of human success and determination along the Colorado River, roughly 1 out of 3 Navajo Nation residents still don’t have clean drinking water.
“I think it’s a 100-year tragedy. By not including such an important stakeholder on the river, we set the system up for failure,” said Heather Tanana, a research professor at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Stegner Center.
Twice a day, three times a week
The communities without reliable water deal with a number of complications.
It’s a barrier to health, impacting hygiene and contributing to the abnormally high COVID-19 fatality rates; it forces some residents to haul water from contaminated sources; it requires time, meaning people on the Navajo Nation often spend hours each day hauling water for their families and livestock.
“Twice a day, three times a week, I go to fill up water,” said Freda Castillo, standing by a pump in Kayenta that costs $5 per month for 2,000 gallons.
It took about 15, maybe 20 minutes to fill her 200-gallon container sitting in the back of a trailer, hitched to a white Dodge diesel pickup. “My mom’s restroom and shower water is right here,” she said, before driving nearly 40 miles back to her family’s homestead, near the small community of Dennehotso.
At her family’s property, where her mother, aunt and 90-year-old grandparents live, Castillo unscrewed the cap to the underground cistern that pipes water into her mother’s house. After another 15 minutes, it became apparent that the cistern wasn’t going to fill.
“I guess I’ll drive back to Kayenta, because that’s the only place that’s open,” Castillo said, her tone somewhat defeated.
In 2012, the utility authority held its first meeting with the community — they said by 2017, the family should have running water and electricity.
They government delivered on the latter, but the family still has no water. So Castillo spends at least six hours a week, often more, driving to Bluff, Monument Valley or Kayenta so her family has water.
“Water is life,” Castillo said, before driving 40 miles back to Kayenta. “I don’t know why they have to limit something that’s already flowing. That river should be ours, too. That’s what makes me angry.”
The basin’s 30 tribes currently have a right to 3.2 million acre-feet of water, about one-quarter of the Colorado River. Tribal water rights are different in the sense that they cannot be lost because of nonuse.
The 30 sovereign tribes in the Colorado River Basin have water rights to the river mostly through a series of lawsuits and settlements. There have been 15 major settlements in the Colorado River Basin that recognize tribal water rights — 12 tribes in the basin still have unresolved water rights.
If the rights for those 12 tribes are acknowledged, it would likely result in millions more acre-feet of Colorado River water being allocated to tribal governments. It’s a reality that could upend the Colorado River Compact.
“The compact can’t sustain all the current uses, without the tribal uses, so when you add on additional tribal water rights, we would be further in a deficit,” said Tanana.
That includes the Navajo Nation which likely has an enormous water right. It currently has an annual right to 81,500 acre-feet from the Utah section of the San Juan River, and can divert 633,000 acre-feet from the New Mexico branch of the same river.
But in Arizona the Navajo Nation does not have a quantified water right, a process that could take years to play out.
Even with a water right, whether from litigation or a settlement, tribes still have to develop it. In Utah, that 81,500 acre-feet, made possible by the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act signed in 2022, is still undeveloped, and considered “system” water — in this context, water that’s allocated, but unused.
In October, the Bureau of Reclamation announced $4 billion to help continue the System Conservation Pilot Program, which compensates users for water they conserve. Because the Navajo Nation, and other tribes in the basin, have an undeveloped water right, their eligibility for the program is curtailed — even though the act of not developing a water right is akin to conservation.
“You can’t be compensated for water you’re not even using,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, a principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Nor can the tribe lease its unused water to municipalities downstream.
This year, the Supreme Court agreed to consider two appeals that stem from a 2003 lawsuit where the Navajo Nation argued the federal government has failed in its obligation to deliver water.
Regardless of how the court rules, the case will have a massive impact on tribes accessing the Colorado River — if it rules in favor of the Navajo Nation, it would place an “enforceable responsibility on the federal government to consider and protect tribal water rights,” said Tanana.
“Because there are still some unresolved water rights claims, it would really help those tribes, particularly those that have unresolved water rights,” she said. “It would get those loose ends tied up, but with the support and attention of the federal government.”
When the well goes dry, ’everyone becomes a water reformer’
It’s unclear how the river will fare in the coming years, as Lake Powell and Lake Mead shrivel and the Bureau of Reclamation makes unprecedented water cuts.
It’s also unclear how the Colorado River Compact would withstand the possibility of the 30 tribes in the basin someday getting their full water right from the river, whether by settlement or litigation.
Using the Navajo as an example, McCool says even if every home on the reservation had water piped to it, “it would still use only a fraction of the total potential water claims by the Navajo.”
Given the tribes’ seniority in the basin, McCool envisions a system where they have sovereign control over their water — that means the ability to lease water to cities and municipalities downstream.
“Say you’re flood irrigating a hay field on the Duchesne River valley in the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. You have water rights to 100 acre-feet, and instead of flood irrigating your hay, where you’re getting two, three cuttings a year making a couple thousand dollars, you decide to put it on the market,” he said. “Phoenix, Las Vegas, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, all these water-short cities, they get to bid for it.”
One of those cities can now pull an extra 100-acre feet from the river, while the Ute farmer gets rich.
McCool acknowledges a system like that would be politically unpopular — right now, at least.
“When people suggest my ideas are outside the realm of political reality, I say ‘everyone becomes a water reformer when you turn on the tap and no water comes out,’” he said.
‘I wouldn’t be the person that I am’
After turning off the highway and winding through a maze of dirt roads near the Utah-Arizona line, Christine Rock pulled up to her mother’s ranch. Met by a handful of dogs and at least 60 sheep, Rock is accompanied tonight by Herman Chee Jr., chief of the Monument Valley Fire Department.
The two unload bales of hay from Chee’s truck before feeding the sheep. Somewhere in the backcountry, about 200 head of cattle roam. A handful of hungry horses soon trot over as the sun dips below a red mesa and the temperatures plummet.
Ranching is hard work, made harder by the drought that killed off between 50 and 60 of the family’s cows a few years back. And at least every other day Rock hauls water to the ranch, sometimes filling the 1,000-gallon cistern that supplies her mother’s old home.
Along the highway, about a 20 minute drive from the ranch, there’s a pipeline supplying several communities near Monument Valley with water. “It would be good if they dropped that water towards this way, to these homes. It would be easier than hauling water from Monument Valley,” Chee said, taking a break from his chores.
But residents are skeptical the government would prioritize a project of that scope to such a remote community. So Rock is left hauling water, often from her own home about 15 miles away, or from community wells. “It’s chaotic, I’m always rushing around,” says Rock, who spends her days teaching Navajo at the nearby elementary school.
Her elderly mother suffers from health complications that require an oxygen tank, and is unable to work the ranch. “One day, you’re going to be hungry,” Rock’s mother tells her, “And you’ll eat what you take care of.”
So Rock, like her relatives, will continue to work the land. She’d love to see the Navajo government pipe water to the community, but she isn’t going to wait. The lessons from her elders, who taught her how to grow food, raise and harvest livestock, and conserve resources are too important to sit idle.
“It takes a lot of hard work. You have to learn how to preserve water for your animals, or so your dishes are clean, maybe you have to hand-wash your clothes,” she said. “But without those humble beginnings, I wouldn't be the person that I am.”