From E&E News (Jeremy P. Jacobs):
In the mid-2000s, seven states, the federal government and Mexico negotiated critical rules for the Colorado River that established how to divvy up its water in a severe drought like it is now facing.
Thirty Native American tribes — with rights to roughly a quarter of all the water in the river — were shut out of those talks.
Tribes want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. The effort offers new challenges for the seven Colorado River basin states and the Biden administration, which has repeatedly pledged to be more inclusive in regulatory efforts that affect Native Americans.
“It is fair to say that tribes were not involved in the negotiation of the 2007 guidelines,” said Anne Castle, a former Interior assistant secretary for water and science during the Obama administration. “Tribes will have a seat at the table this time in the negotiation of the next set of rules. The question is what does that look like? And that hasn’t been worked out yet.”
The 2007 guidelines expire in 2026 and determine how shortages are allocated across the basin. The Colorado River, which serves 40 million Americans, is currently in the grips of a more than 20-year “megadrought,” and federal officials declared a shortage for the first time in August, which means Arizona, Nevada and Mexico will see cuts to their deliveries next year…
The river’s declining flows due to climate change and drought have put a premium on tribal water.
Negotiations over new operating guidelines are just now getting underway. There is widespread agreement that they will be tougher than the last round because the basin will be grappling with a river that is drying up. Simply put, there is less water to go around.
Tribes have rights to at least 3.2 million acre-feet of river water and, by some estimates, 1 million to 1.5 million acre-feet of it is currently unused. An acre-foot is roughly 326,000 gallons, about as much as a Los Angeles family of four uses in a year.
That’s led to a rush to build out capacity for tribes to meaningfully contribute to the negotiations.
Unused tribal water could provide an important buffer for cities like Phoenix, for example, if agreements are penned to fairly compensate the tribes.
There is also a push for more widespread recognition that tribes may have better ideas for how to use the river.
“You have a group of at least 30 tribal sovereigns in the Colorado River basin who have lived sustainability there for thousands of years,” Daryl Vigil, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, said at recent conference hosted by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.
“We are having these conversations about sustainability and resiliency, why aren’t we talking to those people who are still here who have been resilient and have lived sustainably?” Vigil said.