Communities across the West are beginning to feel the impacts of the region's limited water resources.

For Native American communities, however, life without access to safe water has been an all too common reality for decades. By some estimates, 48% of households on reservations do not have clean water or adequate sanitation, and Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing.

"In terms of the effects of environmental issues, every environmental issue in this country is happening on Indigenous land," said Maria Archibald, the lands and water programs coordinator for the Sierra Club Utah Chapter. "If there are effects on people at all, those effects are often tenfold on Indigenous communities and it's often these communities that are really rising to the frontlines."

Archibald was among a group of Utah experts who gathered at the University of Utah on Wednesday for a panel exploring how Native communities are pushing back against water rights issues and what the broader community can do to support them.

For Diné freelance writer Alastair Lee Bitsóí, the issue is deeply personal. Bitsóí grew up in a rural part of the New Mexican side of the Navajo Nation that lacked access to clean water.

He remembers boiling water to do chores one day as a child and spilling the pot of water on his foot, which eventually had boils from the burn. To this day, he said that experience "remains something significant" and informs how he portrays Indigenous experiences through storytelling.

"I don't feel sorry for people who don't have access to water that are in privileged communities. I think that's where you gotta reframe some things," he said, using Scottdale's decision to cut off a wealthy suburb from the city water supply as an example.

"Welcome to our plight. Welcome to our situation. Welcome to that world and our reality. For me, the inequities are obviously stark," he continued. "I feel like systemically tribes and Indigenous people have historically learned to conserve because of the structures that enhanced (their abilities) to naturally conserve. For me, just like boiling that day, I know how to survive without electricity or running water and I don't think the rest of America knows how."

Water 101

Utah utilizes both surface and groundwater sources. About 70% is used for agriculture and 15% for municipal uses ranging from drinking water to watering golf courses. Like many Western states, Utah follows the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, which translates into two tenets: "first in time is first in right" and "use it or lose it."

This means that the first individuals to claim water rights are the first to receive them and that water rights can be forfeited if not used for a seven-year period. Tribes' water rights usually date back to when a reservation was established, though those rights are not always honored and many tribal communities lack the infrastructure to use their water.

"What you'll hear Southern Ute arguing and Ute Indian Tribe is, 'We haven't been able to access that money, other people are using our water and we're not getting any compensation for that,'" said Heather Tanana, a Diné law professor with expertise in tribal water issues. "But we have programs right now for farmers to not use their water and not lose or get the risk of losing their water rights and they're getting paid."

Bitsóí and Tanana said the lack of infrastructure can be a barrier to both upward mobility and a growing number of Native youth who want to return to and live on their ancestral homelands.

From left: Jeff Rose, U. professor in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department; Leah Richardson-Oppliger, engineer with Utah Division of Water Rights; Maria Archibald, lands and water programs coordinator for the Sierra Club Utah Chapter; Diné freelance writer Alastair Lee Bitsóí; and Heather Tanana, a Diné law professor with expertise in tribal water issues.
From left: Jeff Rose, U. professor in Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department; Leah Richardson-Oppliger, engineer with Utah Division of Water Rights; Maria Archibald, lands and water programs coordinator for the Sierra Club Utah Chapter; Diné freelance writer Alastair Lee Bitsóí; and Heather Tanana, a Diné law professor with expertise in tribal water issues. | Screentshot, U of U Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion via YoutTube

On the Colorado River Basin, tribes have rights to about 25% of the flow. That doesn't include a number of tribes who are still fighting for their rights in court. Tanana cautioned against making blanket assumptions about how Indigenous communities and tribes are approaching environmental issues like water.

"Historically tribes were not included in Colorado River Basin management discussions and the change now is this recognition that they should be," Tanana said. "One of the things tribes are bringing to the discussion is the Colorado River Basin isn't just about how much money — or not money but it ends up being money — water the states are getting or this and that. It's we need to protect the basin as a whole and that there's a lot of species and the whole ecosystem that depend on that and that leaving water in for the basin health is going to have benefits for us as a community."

Genuine involvement

Members of the panel invited organizations to make genuine efforts to involve Native voices in movements and policy discussions and open their minds to how Indigenous resistance can operate.

"Indigenous resistance doesn't always look familiar to us as white people," Archibald said. "That is just as — if not far more — valid than any other way of organizing. It's our responsibility to show up and authentically support that."

"These movements should be community driven by those who are being impacted. A lot of times I think you can get a little bit of that tokenizing because you get the one Native person involved and they're involved in the photos but not involved in a meaningful way," Tanana said, adding that centuries of state and federal policies, such as Indian boarding schools, left some tribes with diminished capacity.

"A lot of times when they want an attorney, physicians and educators, it's outsiders having to come in. I encourage you, that need is there and help us fulfill it. But if you come in, be respectful, come in and learn. My hope is ultimately all those positions will be filled by our rising Indigenous youth who are doing amazing stuff."