The Colorado River has supported Native people in the West since time immemorial. Over the past century, more people and more demands have been placed on this vital—but limited—resource. There are 29 federally recognized tribes in the basin that depend on the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries for many purposes, including irrigation, recreation, domestic, commercial, wildlife, instream flows, habitat restoration, municipal, industrial, mining, power generation, cultural and religious activities. The tribes hold a significant amount of water rights, many of which are the most senior in the basin. Those rights must be protected so that the tribes can continue their existing uses and develop new opportunities for this valuable asset. Our common challenge is to find ways to secure and enhance access to safe, reliable water supplies for the tribes in the face of fiscal challenges and a changing climate.
In recent decades, negotiation and implementation of tribal water rights settlements has been the key to securing water supplies that have been lacking for tribes across the West. We have learned that only by working together we can promote prosperity in Indian Country and in surrounding communities.
Today, the Colorado River is experiencing the worst drought in a century and one of the worst in over a thousand years. As we look ahead, we recognize that a growing imbalance between water supply and demand and competing needs will require that we carefully manage every drop of this precious resource. Leaders within Indian Country and within the Colorado River Ten Tribes Partnership are helping to develop a roadmap for the future of the basin. Navigating that roadmap requires collaboration, research, adoption of best practices, and commitment for this basin to thrive despite the challenges we face.
Working strongly in our favor is the recent collaboration with all of the basin’s stakeholders, including tribal nations, individual tribal leaders, governments and public interest groups since December of 2012, when Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation released the Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand Study. The study confirms that, without future actions, the basin faces a range of potential imbalances between supply and demand. The water challenges facing the Southwest will affect us all, but it is critically important that we continue to honor our commitments to tribal nations.
The time to move forward in Indian country is now. Interior recently announced the next steps we will take together to address the long-term water challenges identified in the Basin Study. One of the most important next steps is for Reclamation to focus on Tribal water issues and needs.
Indian tribes and tribal leaders will be key players in developing the tribal basin study and through it, the path to a sustainable water future. Interior and Reclamation are committed to jointly working with the Ten Tribes Partnership and other interested tribes at the regional and local level on these complex issues. For example, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona offered several issues for consideration in the study. Interior and the Partnership are building upon their collaborative relationship – allocating financial resources and technical expertise to this important effort.
The future of the Colorado River Basin cannot be charted without the participation of its first people. The Department of the Interior is deeply committed to partnering with tribal leaders to ensure future generations can continue to live and work in and enjoy this diverse and unique basin in the years and decades ahead.
Anne Castle is the assistant secretary of the Interior for Water and Science. T. Darryl Vigil is a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Chairman of the Colorado River Basin Ten Tribes Partnership. For more on the Ten Tribes Partnership, visit www.cruwa.org/colorado-river/ten-tribes.