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Tribes focus on Post-2026 operation guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

Tribal and federal officials met for historic talks on the future of the Colorado River Basin last week in Las Vegas at the Colorado River Water Users Association, or CRWUA, annual conference. Their focus: the Post-2026 operation guidelines for Lake Powell and Lake Mead. 

The “Sovereign to Sovereign Dialogue,” a first-of-its-kind panel held on Friday during CRWUA’s 75th meeting included discussions between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton and three tribal leaders among the Ten Tribes Partnership.

More than 40 million residents living in the Southwest and Mexico rely on the Colorado River for food, water and energy, including 30 tribal communities who lay claim to a fourth of its supply.

“Not only is the Colorado River our namesake, it is our economic lifeblood,” said Colorado River Indian Tribes chairwoman Amelia Flores. “Agriculture on our land supports the nation’s food, fiber and forage needs from carrots, potatoes, dairy and beef cattle to cotton and alfalfa.” 

She added that Colorado River Indian Tribes, also known as CRIT, have been farmers “since time immemorial and we’ll continue to be farmers.” 

About 80,000 acres — more than a fourth of CRIT’s 300,000-acre reservation — are arable farmlands. CRIT Farms is their 33,000-acre tribally-owned commercial farm that overwhelmingly depends on flood irrigation. 

Cotton and alfalfa are the main crops they grow, but both are water-intensive. An estimated 4 to 6 acre-feet is needed per acre of alfalfa during the growing season. About 60% of CRIT Farms’ commercial land is set aside for its production.

Earlier that week during  a panel on sustainable agriculture, farm manager Josh Moore at CRIT Farms admitted that “alfalfa always gets a terrible rap.” 

“I know there’s a huge target on it, but I like to think that unless we’re ready to give up ice cream, cheese pizza, I’m not ready to give up alfalfa just yet,” said Moore. “I'm not an apologist, but I am looking at ways to grow it more efficiently.” 

Another 40 community farmers are cultivating those same arable lands on the CRIT reservation, according to Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension agent Adonis Alamban at the University of Arizona. 

Although agriculture uses approximately 80% of water from the Colorado River, the CRIT’s Flores stressed that the “protection of our river is an exercise of our sovereignty and a sacred duty.” 

Tribal communities were once excluded from water negotiations — most notably the 1922 Colorado River Compact — even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Winters Doctrine ruling in 1908. 

“We are at the end of 2023, so it is time to right that historical wrong,” said Flores. “The Biden administration and Reclamation, under the leadership of Commissioner Touton, have done more than any other administration to engage tribal Nations in a meaningful way.”

This dialogue is another step, but there are still hurdles: Continued government-to-government consultation and gaps in federal funding, particularly for infrastructure. 

“The fact that our lack of access to capital has prevented us from putting our water to use in the same vein as our non-Indian neighbors cannot be held against the Navajo Nation,” said Navajo Nation Council delegate Brenda Jesus, who also serves as chair of the Nation’s Resources and Development Committee. “Access to water must be equitable.”

With the Navajo Nation straddling the upper and lower basins in three states, this finite natural resource is utilized widely — drawing clean drinking water — irrigating crops — even generating economic and recreational revenue at Lake Powell.

She emphasized that future talks regarding water rights should be “treated equally and fair throughout the process,” so that her Navajo constituents and neighboring allies, like the Hopi Tribe, can one day “fully enjoy the benefits of settled water rights.” 

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe chairman Manuel Heart, who represents some 2,100 members in southern Colorado, is seeking to craft “a fully living document for the current and future quantification of water use,” so that “no matter what administration comes in, it can always be amended and improved.” 

“Let us choose how we want to utilize our water uses, for a better future for our children and grandchildren,” Heart added. “Water is life, for everything, from us, to the environment, and our ecosystem.” 

“What we lack on our reservations is nothing compared to what municipalities have, so we need funding,” added Flores. “We need those resources to build up our irrigation system.” 

Even Touton acknowledged those shortfalls, highlighting that “partnerships and investments” are barriers for tribes ahead of the Post-2026 guidelines. The Reclamation commissioner pledged, as a partner, “to listen, to learn and to act,” from those sitting on the stage beside her to the banks of the Colorado River. 

That same week, the U.S. Department of Interior announced $16.5 million through her federal agency to expand access to clean, reliable water supplies for tribes “confronted by drought conditions that threaten tribal homelands, food sources and cultural resources.” 

This new round of funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act to provide $4 million in annual technical assistance and support for cooperative agreements. Touton said these funds are meant to “build up the technical capacity and also to utilize the expertise that the Bureau of Reclamation can bring to your decision-making processes.” 

“That is just one investment, and we are looking to do more with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act,” Touton added. “Let’s get a lot more work done together, and I’m committed to breaking more barriers.”

But Heart gestured at a row of flags on display on the conference stage, and shared: “Two countries, seven states and 10 tribes on the Colorado River, but there’s 20 more tribes that are also within the Colorado River Basin.” 

While two-thirds have already secured water rights, another third of them still have unsettled water claims, most of which are in Arizona. “Each one of them, sovereign governments, working together for a better tomorrow,” Heart added.

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.