Historically left out of Colorado River negotiations, 20 tribes urge Interior Secretary Haaland to include their voices

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks at a press conference Thursday, July 22, 2021 after meeting with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, Rep. Diana DeGette and Denver Water CEO Jim Lochhead at the Denver Water Center to discuss drought relief and related climate issues.

Leaders of 20 tribes in the Colorado River basin signed a letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, urging for inclusion in the upcoming negotiations on how to manage the Colorado River system in a changing climate.

“As the legal structure exists in terms of the policy of the Colorado River, we don’t have any formal inclusion,” said Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation with Jemez Pueblo and Zia Pueblo affiliation. 

Vigil is the water administrator for Jicarilla Apache Nation and the co-facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group of Tribal members and water experts working together to build the capacity of tribes to participate in Colorado River negotiations. The efforts of the initiative helped create the letter to Haaland.

Leaders of the two tribes in Colorado, Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Chairman Melvin Baker of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, both signed the letter.

When the Colorado River Compact was signed in 1922 by the seven states in the basin, the tribes were not included in the allocation of Colorado River water. Since then, the states have continued to leave the 30 federally recognized tribes in the basin out of the decision making process on how to manage the river.

In 2007, the states adopted interim river management guidelines to respond to worsening drought conditions without input from the tribes. The guidelines will be replaced by a new framework in 2026.

The letter to Secretary Haaland calls for the tribes to have an “essential role” throughout the process of developing the new guidelines.

Vigil said since the tribes are sovereign governments, they should be invited to a “sovereign table that doesn’t exist” to discuss how the Colorado River is managed. Instead, the states act as a trustee to represent tribal water interests, he said.

“That just hasn’t happened historically,” Vigil said. 

The tribes have been told they will be included in the upcoming negotiations. However, Vigil said it’s lip service until the federal government fulfills its promise to engage tribes as equals to the states on Colorado River policy.

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“So anything that goes on right now in terms of commitments, promises, whatever you want to call it, is kind of meaningless because it's not backed up by the existing law and policy,” Vigil said. Until new policies are put in place or the law is changed, Vigil continued, there is nothing to ensure the tribes are included.

The two largest reservoirs in the United States, lakes Powell and Mead, are filled with Colorado River water. Each reservoir hit its lowest levels on record this year, which caused the federal government to take emergency action for the first time. The U.S. Department of the Interior cut water use in the lower basin and sent more water downstream from reservoirs in the upper basin.

The letter to Secretary Haaland said the tribes’ involvement in Colorado River decisions would recognize the impacts of drought and looming water shortages on the Basin tribes. The tribes’ perspective, the letter continued, “is undoubtedly shared by others in the basin, is that we should all be working together as soon as possible.”

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