Lorelei Cloud joined the Colorado Water Conservation Board in March as the first tribal council member to serve in the position.
Cloud, the vice chair of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, was appointed to the position by Gov. Jared Polis. She joins the board at a critical time for water not just in Colorado, but across the American West.
As the representative for the San Miguel-Dolores-San Juan drainage basin, she represents land that covers not just the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations, but also 10 counties in southwestern Colorado.
She spoke to Colorado Matters about including Indigenous voices in water discussions and the challenges ahead for the Colorado River.
Read the interview
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Hesse: Can you give us a sense for how the history of the Southern Ute intersects with the water challenges you're working on today?
Lorelei Cloud: So, as you know, tribal history is very important within the United States because it's tied to the history of this country and it's also tied to the water. And, particularly in the Colorado River Basin where a lot of this conversation is happening for the Ute people, the Southern Ute people, particularly. Ute people have been the longest and oldest continuous inhabitants of what is now known as the state of Colorado. Our creation story started in the Rocky Mountains. We don't have a migration story. Other tribes do. My historical area encompasses pretty much the entire state of Colorado, a large portion of Utah, the upper portions of Arizona and New Mexico. We traveled with our seasons. We gathered our foods and our medicines throughout this area, and we've always had the principles of taking care of ourselves and our environments. Those two have always been in balance with each other.
And, through the time when the Europeans came over, my area shrunk, we ended up on reservations. We were located to where my reservation is currently in the southwest corner of the state. My reservation currently borders the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the state of New Mexico. It encompasses now about 110 miles in length and about 15 miles wide.Ute people, we come from different bands of Utes and my band that's on my reservation is the Mouache and Caputa bands of Ute. And so that's a general history of where the tribe is at and it plays a big part of why we're wanting to be so much involved in the decision-making of what's going on in the Colorado River Basin.
And your newest role is on the Colorado Water Conservation Board. You were appointed in March. What has that experience been like?
It has been fantastic so far. It aligns closely with historic Ute principles because the Colorado Water Conservation Board, their mission is to conserve, protect, and develop and manage Colorado's water for present and future generations. Honestly, that's not much different than what we believe as Ute people. I am currently representing the San Miguel, Dolores and San Juan Basin, which covers both the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute reservations as well as 10 counties. I am the first Native American to join this board since the creation in 1937, which is really, it's a fantastic opportunity, but at the same time, it's a little bit overwhelming because I would've hoped more Native people would have a voice at that level. And, as you know, that just hasn't happened because of inclusion within the basin as far as policymaking.
Historically, tribes have been left out of the process of negotiating these Colorado River issues. Do you feel that's going to be different this time around?
I'm hopeful that we are going to be included in those conversations. There has been a lot of effort going forward historically in making sure that tribes are included in those broader conversations. There currently is still no formal written document or no formal process for tribes to be included in those conversations. The Colorado River Compact was created in 1922. It wasn't until 1924 that Native Americans became citizens of this country. And so with that and our tribal history, I think that plays a big part in why we were not part of those conversations at the very beginning. And so now, being included in those conversations is going to be critical. And, because we know that we are sovereigns — and for the federal government and the Bureau of Reclamation and the Upper Colorado River Commission to recognize tribes as sovereigns — and having those government-to-government discussions when it comes to water, I think is critical.
Last fall, we learned that Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming for the first time began formal negotiations with tribal governments over water. How is this going to affect the broader water conversation now that tribes are formally being brought into discussions that they've so long been left out of?
I think it's going to have a positive impact. You know, when we talk about these state officials finally having conversations with tribes, again, it's been historical. We've been meeting with the Upper Colorado River Commission. They're the commissioners from each one of those states and the six tribes in the upper basin. We've had some really good conversations, but we've had to get through a lot of tough conversations to get to that point. And I think that since these state officials were still willing to take that on, we're going to make a really big impact for the Colorado River Basin, not just for the upper basin because it shows that there are four states that are willing and able to work with tribes in their respective areas.
And I'm hoping that creates leeway for other tribes, other states, particularly in the lower basin, to find ways to work together and have positive outcomes. Again, I think it's going to be a positive outcome when you stand together as a group, as a collective, even though you may not see eye to eye or agree with decisions or the understanding of where somebody is coming from. If you can put that aside and create the trust that's very much needed, we can do just about anything. And I think we all have the same mind frame of protecting the river and making sure that all of the water users have the water that they need.
What else needs to change to make sure we are getting more tribal voices involved in these water conversations?
Honestly, it's the willingness to have the conversations — and sometimes there's not a willingness. There's a lot of standoffish feelings and sometimes I believe that it's fearing that tribes may be using their water. And I think it's also a mind frame that we have to overcome because just like with my tribe; my tribe may not be seen as the water user that we are. We're seen as agriculture — farmers and municipalities. We're using it for industrial uses, but we're also using it for our traditional practices. Water is the element of life, it is the essence of life. And when you believe that and you believe that water is there from the Creator, we're meant to take care of it and to be the caretakers of it. From that standpoint, we know that water means more to us than just dollar signs or that it's going to water our crops.
There's a spiritual aspect to that. Again, we've been here, the Creator made this world for all of us. And that's something that we believe as Ute people and caring for that environment. We know that it's going to take care of us as well. We've always put the environment ahead of our own needs. It has a spiritual aspect to it because everything has a spirit to it. The water has a spirit to it. All the green things that we see — the trees, the grasses — those also have spirits to it. We're here to take care of those things. If you can get others to think that way as well, I think we can think of our environment in a different manner and provide for it in a way that is going to be sustainable for future generations.
You were discussing the multiple meanings that water has to the Southern Ute. When it comes to tribal water rights, what do most people not understand? What are we getting wrong?
The first assumption, again, is that most tribes are considered just a regular water user. We're more than that. We have a cultural aspect to that. When you use your water in a traditional manner, like we use our water in ceremonies, we pray with our water. We pray with our water in the mornings when we wake up and it holds a special value in our lives. When we think about those things, we're more than just a water user, we're a water protector. We've always been water protectors since we've been here. In addition to that, you know, you have to think about tribes being sovereign. We held unique federal water rights, which are senior and protected.
Earlier this summer the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had no “affirmative duty” to help secure Navajo nation water rights. What did you make of that?
So that case is very unique because the Supreme Court held that the Navajo Nation had no rights to enforce the Department of Interior's trust duty to protect its water rights. But the court also continued to weaken the federal government's trust responsibility to tribes. That decision was very disheartening and disappointing, considering the administration has pledged to support tribal rights. But I also want to clarify that we don't believe the decision directly applies to the Southern Ute tribe because our water rights have been quantified pursuant a congressionally approved water settlement. But, nonetheless, we will continue to protect and preserve our water rights.
You mentioned that you're the first tribal member on this board. Did it surprise you to be the first in this position?
Yes and no. I thought there would've been a little bit more history to the board and water within the state of Colorado. But, given the history of the Colorado River Basin and the exclusion of tribal voices in all those conversations, there's not been a tribal voice at that level of policymaking. And so that was something that all tribes are fighting for is to have a seat in that policymaking.
How do the senior water rights of tribes balance with overuse downstream?
That is a major concern and I think it's a major concern for most tribes because most tribes don't have the capacity or the infrastructure to put their water to use. In order to protect tribal water rights, you have to develop the water. And, because a lot of the water hasn't been developed, it's been unused. So that unused tribal water ends up becoming system water. And with that system water, now everybody else downstream gets to use that water and they feel that is their obligation. But, once that water is put to use, there will be less water for other users because these other users that have been using that water for free are going to feel those effects. So I think that is a big fear of tribes using their water and why there's so much resistance to tribes having a seat at the policymaking table. Tribes have been at a disadvantage and disenfranchised for a very long time.
Because of the tribal water study that came out in 2018/ 2019, it showed that 10 tribes out of 30 tribes in the entire basin have allocations up to 25% of the entire river. And for you to leave that amount of water users out of the conversations, that's a big impact when you're starting to develop water within the basin. But out of those 10 tribes, some of those tribes still don't have their water settled or quantified. The other tribes in the basin also don't. So that 25%, honestly, could go up and I'm not sure what that percentage would be and I'm not going to take a guess at that. But that's a big impact of what you're looking at as far as allocation of the river and why the river is so over-allocated. Not just the hydrology, but it's the overallocation that's part of the quandary that we're trying to deal with within the river basin.
You mentioned the infrastructure, or lack thereof, for some tribal communities to develop those water resources. Obviously, there's a lot of federal money around right now for water projects. Are you seeing any of that on Southern Ute lands?
Funding is very critical and needed. I know that my tribe really needs the funding to repair and maintain our existing infrastructure. The Pine River Irrigation Project is a big, big one for us. In addition, my tribe needs funding to develop and construct new water delivery systems and infrastructure. Going back to the reliance of the downstream users, that plays a part in a lot of the conversations that we deal with as far as tribes putting their water to use and the infrastructure. Sometimes it's really hard for tribes to gain the funding that they need to develop those infrastructure projects because sometimes they need these projects to be shovel-ready and tribes don't have the capacity even to get grant writers or the staff that they need to get the plans together to have a shovel-ready project.
You mentioned that irrigation project which was a priority. Can you tell us more about that?
Our Pine River Irrigation project was developed and created in the early 1900s. This is a federal project. It is owned and operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and they put it in place in hopes that we would become farmers and irrigators. But since the 1960s, they have not maintained this infrastructure. So again, back to my reservation, it's 110 miles long. So in this little strip of land, there's 175 miles of canals. So out of this canal system, only 25% of this canal system is actually workable. And so when you think about how much is not working, that's a failure of the trust responsibility. And so that's one infrastructure that we have and we're trying to get the funding for in order to fix it so that we can put our water to use
And that must be tens of millions of dollars in needs?
The last estimate, a few years ago, I believe was at $70 million. And so with inflation and you know, the environment that we're working in now, I'm pretty sure that's probably doubled.
Zooming out a bit, what specific water conversation do you think is going to be the most difficult to grapple with going forward?
I believe it is going to be the reduction in non-tribal and downstream water users so that tribes can develop their water resources in their communities. That is always going to be a contention point within the basin, but as soon as we can, you know, get over the fear and help everybody in the basin, I think that's gonna be where we start to develop positive outcomes of what's gonna happen in the basin.
I know this is the million-dollar question, but how do you go about alleviating downstream users' concerns about that?
I think it's just going to be having conversations with them because that's the only way you're gonna be able to build trust. And it's not just with the downstream users, but it's with tribes as well too. Everybody has a stake in the river and there's a lot of mistrust right now that has built up for decades in the basin. And trust is going to be the only way that we're going to fix that. So, if you can start building trust and building relationships with not just tribes but the communities, that's a good foundation to start to build a positive relationship with everybody in the basin to find a positive solution.
You've been on the State Water Conservation Board for a few months now. Are you more or less hopeful about our broader ability to tackle these water issues?
You know, I'm actually pretty optimistic about our future. I just want people to learn about the Southern Ute tribe. We have a website that has a lot of our history of the Southern Ute and the Ute people in general, and you can follow the Southern Ute tribe on Facebook and our tribal council. We have a tribal council Facebook and Instagram page but also learning about your tribes in your respective areas. Every tribe's going to be different.
And so you can't generalize tribes or Native Americans. You have to find out what each one is dealing with and how and why they're dealing with those situations. And on an everyday level, be conscious of your water use, adopt practices that reduce your water, pray for your water, take care of your water, take care of your environment. Talking about the water conservation board, this board meets throughout the year and these meetings are open to the public. If you want to get some more information, you can sign up for the emails to get updates on the water issues. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has its own website and you can get the information there and sign up for those emails.
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