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Colorado River deal means more say for Indigenous people in water decisions

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

Six Native American tribes have come to an agreement with the Upper Colorado River Basin states on a deal to share the river’s water.

The arrangement with Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming comes as tribes have asked the federal government for more input on talks over the river’s future.

Alex Hager of KUNC in Colorado joined The Show to talk about about the agreement and what it means going forward.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: So what exactly did these six tribes and these four states agree to?

ALEX HAGER: So this agreement is a memorandum of understanding. So it's not exactly clear what the action items are. They describe it as a commitment to the timely sharing of information regarding Colorado River developments and identifying common goals and seeking co-operation. So basically, it is a little bit of a kind of soft and squishy agreement. But what it represents is closer collaboration between groups that have not always been on the same page. States that use the Colorado River's water are the primary negotiators for how everyone who lives in the Southwest will have access to water going forward.

And for a long time, tribes have had almost no voice in those conversations despite having legal rights to nearly a quarter of the river's flow. So this represents in some ways a step toward more say for Indigenous people in decisions about how water gets allocated.

BRODIE: Well, it almost sounds like maybe it's more symbolic than anything but potentially important going forward as talks between all of the basin, the Colorado River Basin states and the federal government and potentially tribes continue.

HAGER: That's right. I think it may be symbolic, but that could have some real world consequences. Right now, the states that use the Colorado River's water are kind of caught in a standoff about how to divvy it up going forward, when the current rules expire. We have seen competing proposals for managing the river from the Upper Basin states, which are the ones who signed this tribal agreement, and the Lower Basin states, California, Arizona and Nevada. So there are kind of two camps of states and for one of those camps to have in writing the support of a number of tribal groups that might bolster their claim that their pitch to the federal government for managing Colorado river water is a little more sound, it has more broad consensus.

BRODIE: So do you get the sense then that water managers in other states might also be, now with this agreement, might be looking for maybe more buy in from other tribal communities or looking to negotiate or come to agreement with, with other tribal communities?

HAGER: You know, this is something that varies, case to case pretty intensely. There's a great tribal water leader named Daryl Vigil who always says if you know a tribe, you know a tribe. And I think that that's the case here. The tribes have very different financial needs, they have very different water needs. So it's a little hard to put them all in one group. However, what we have seen is that a pretty large group of tribes, at last check, it was 18 of the 30 that use Colorado River water, they put their names on a document saying, look, these are our priorities.

So you saw one group of states say this is kind of hard and fast, how much water we would like to see go to these places. We had another group of states release a competing plan that said, here's how much water we'd like to see go to these places. But instead of suggesting exactly how the water be shared, there's a group that represents a majority of tribes in the Colorado River Basin that say, look, no matter how much water flows to each of these places, we would like to have a more formal role in deciding that kind of that kind of allocation. So those tribes are trying to get their voice heard. And we now see when the federal government draws up the official plans for divvying up the river who exactly they listen to.

BRODIE: Yeah, I mean, has there been any indication that the feds are more inclined to listen to, to tribal communities, tribal voices?

HAGER: They have said time and time again that after a long history of exclusion, it is now time to do more to bring the tribes into the fold. But, you know, it kind of remains to be seen to what extent they'll actually do that.

BRODIE: Right. So, Alex, when we're talking about trying to divvy up Colorado River water, one of the big questions is how much water is there? Actually, you've done some reporting in the last several days about the the snow melt starting to to come off the the mountains in Colorado. What are our hydrologists, what are water officials saying about the amount of water that might be flowing into the system after this winter?

HAGER: Well, I will say if you remember headlines from the past handful of years about really drastically low reservoir levels and really dry conditions from snow melt. I will tell you now, we will probably not have that, but we probably also won't have great news. It was a pretty average year. Snow totals in the Rocky Mountains where the Colorado River gets its start, they were right around average. They were generally within 10 percentage points of 100% of normal. So basically around average. I talked to some climate scientists who said there's a number of things that could get in the way. So we don't see an average amount of water in streams as a result of an average amount of snow.

Because there are a lot of climate factors that could change, that we could have hot days. That mean it melts quickly and evaporates. There's dry soil that was left parched after dry summers that could soak up water on its way between snow and rivers. So likely what we're going to have is a pretty normal, if maybe below normal runoff year, the amount of water that enters the nation's largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, will be normal and normal right now means not great. We are in year 23 of a long period of dry conditions. So even an OK year right now means that things in the broad sense are still not great for Western water.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.