Extension Needed for Protection of Interior Least Tern, Piping Plover, and Whooping Crane — @AudubonRockies

Least Tern. Photo credit Doug German via Audubon.

From Audubon Rockies (Daly Edmunds):

The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program (PRRIP) is a multi-state effort that began in 1997, when the governors of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska joined with the U.S. Secretary of Interior to sign the “Cooperative Agreement for Platte River Research and Other Efforts Relating to Endangered Species Habitat along the Central Platte River, Nebraska.”

Based on the novel idea that a collaborative approach would prevent years of courtroom battles over limited water supplies and individual river species, the PRRIP works to accommodate the habitat needs of these threatened and endangered bird species by increasing stream flows in the central Platte River during relevant time periods. While these species require habitat in central Nebraska for survival, their habitat is created and maintained through a dynamic river system that begins with water from Colorado and Wyoming. The program also enhances, restores and protects habitat, and does so in a manner to accommodate new water-related activities. This is a good program but due to expire this year.

Wyoming Senator Barrasso (R) and Colorado Representative Neguse (D) each took leadership positions on this issue, sponsoring complementary bills in the Senate (S.990) and House (H.R. 3237), that propose to extend the program. Audubon Rockies and Audubon Nebraska thanked the entire Colorado Congressional Delegation for their unanimous, bipartisan support for these bills. Our offices also thanked Wyoming’s Senator Enzi for supporting the Senate bill, and Representative Cheney recently joined other western co-sponsors of the House bill. Additionally, all Colorado and Wyoming Audubon chapters sent letters thanking their respective congressional delegations for their unanimous, bipartisan of a strong stewardship program.

Meanwhile click here to enjoy the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards winners.

Birds make fascinating subjects, as the winners and honorable mentions of this year’s contest, our 10th, make clear. They’re at once beautiful and resilient, complex and comical. It’s no wonder why we love them so.

The images that won the 2019 Audubon Photography Awards, presented in association with Nature’s Best Photography, are as impressive as ever, but attentive readers might notice a few more images than usual. That’s because we’ve added two awards. The Plants for Birds category is inspired by Audubon’s Plants for Birds program, supported by Coleman and Susan Burke, which provides resources for choosing and finding plants native to zip codes in the United States. This category poses a new challenge to photographers: Don’t just capture an incredible moment—make sure it also features a bird and plant native to the location in which the photo was taken, in order to highlight the critical role native habitat plays in supporting bird life. And in the spirit of Kevin Fisher, Audubon’s longtime creative director who recently retired, the Fisher Prize recognizes a creative approach to photographing birds that blends originality with technical expertise. It honors a photograph selected from all of the submissions that pushes the bounds of traditional bird photography.

We want to extend a heartfelt thank you to all 2,253 entrants, hailing from all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and 10 Canadian provinces and territories. Your dedication to appreciating, celebrating, and sharing the wonder of birds and the landscapes they inhabit inspires us now and throughout the year.

Analysts hit plan to dump oilfield pollutants into #WindRiver — WyoFile #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

Boysen Reservoir in 2009. By Charles Willgren from Fort Collins, Colorado, United States – Boysen ReservoirUploaded by PDTillman, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7063709

From WyoFile (Angus M. Thuermer Jr.):

In the first publicly released independent review of a 637-page modeling report and 113-page application for a “produced water” discharge permit, consultants hired by four conservation groups let loose on the science in Aethon studies describing methods and results as “misleading,” “very odd,” “questionable and unrealistic,” “surprising,” and “unwarranted and wrong,” among other things.

Aetheon and Burlington Resources seek permission from the BLM to expand the Moneta Divide oil and gas field by 4,250 wells and need a DEQ permit to discharge up to 2,161 tons a month of total dissolved solids at a rate of 8.27 million gallons a day. The effluent from oil and gas wells would flow through Alkali and Badwater creeks, into Boysen Reservoir in Boysen State Park and into the federally protected Class I flows of the Wind River — the source of Thermopolis’ drinking water.

“The draft permit violates the Clean Water Act, the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act, and the Department [of Environmental Quality’s] rules and regulations implementing those laws,” the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Powder River Basin Resource Council, National Audubon Society and Natural Resource Defense Council wrote the DEQ. “The discharge of produced water from this facility has damaged and continues to damage surface waters of the state and threatens downstream communities with undisclosed health risks,” reads the groups’ cover letter, signed by representatives in Lander, Sheridan, Washington, D.C. and Livermore, Colorado.

They urged the state regulatory agency to encourage the Texas-based energy company “to consider other, less environmental damaging alternatives to the discharge.” In the meantime, “the permit should be denied,” the letter reads.

Yet in the arid West, new water can be valuable, if it is properly treated. “Water resources in the West are a topic of great importance and these issues are currently being studie[d] by a multitude of governmental agencies and research institutes,” wrote Peter Jones, a consulting geochemist from Houston, Texas. He reviewed the Aethon proposal and made the seven-page review available to WyoFile.

“As planned, the Moneta Divide development will be on the forefront of technology and may well be a model for how produced water may be converted into a valuable resource,” he wrote.

Wyoming rivers map via Geology.com

11-foot wall of water: One dam breaks, three counties suffer — The Lincoln Journal Star

Nebraska state officials flew over the flood-ravaged Spencer Dam on March 16, 2019. The Niobrara River had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gage height before it broke through the 90-year-old dam early on March 14, 2019. After that, an 11-foot wave rolled through. Photo credit: State of Nebraska

Here’s a report on the flooding in Nebraska from Peter Salter writing for The Lincoln Journal Star. Click through and read the whole article and check out the various videos. Here’s an excerpt:

From their offices in Lincoln early Thursday, hydrologists with the U.S. Geological Survey were monitoring the final few moments of a stream gauge more than 200 miles away, on the Niobrara River.

It was hinting at something catastrophic.

“We were watching it from here, and it looked like something incredible was happening that we couldn’t believe,” said Jason Lambrecht. “And suddenly, everything went dark.”

The gauge had been ripped away by the wall of water released when the 90-year-old Spencer Dam failed under the pressure of the river, swollen with rain and rapid snowmelt and broken ice. But its last readings allowed Lambrecht to measure the size of the surge.

Earlier, the Niobrara had been running at 5 or 6 feet of gauge height. After it broke through the dam, it measured nearly 17.5 feet. It wasn’t a gradual increase, either…

And in its wake, three Nebraska counties would learn how that much moving water can become immediately destructive and potentially deadly. How it can cause instant pain and long-term suffering. How it can harm not only those in its path, but those living miles away.

First, the wave swept away a section of U.S. 281, a nearby riverside saloon and at least one home, possibly occupied. And it continued downstream, barreling toward the town of Niobrara — and its mouth at the Missouri River — about 40 miles away.

Knox County: ‘It’s crazy’

The service station owners thought they were ready for the coming water.

They’d taken the tire machine and other equipment away. They brought the important paperwork home. They put their ’68 Camaro up on the lift. They moved the rest of what they could to higher ground, filling the rafters with inventory.

And the couple had a huge inventory. Vic’s Service has anchored the west edge of Niobrara for 25 years, and had enough hydraulic fittings and plumbing pieces to serve as a kind of farmer’s supply store, said Ruth Janak, who co-owns the station with her husband, Victor.

They checked on their business Wednesday, and found it already swamped with 4 feet of water, her desk upturned, pop machines on their sides. A mess, but nothing they couldn’t handle.

“We thought, when the water recedes, we’ll be able to get in and clean all that up,” she said.

They returned Thursday, and found most of it missing.

“Our main building, the one we did our business at, it’s gone. The gas pumps are gone. We lost the propane tank. So many tools are gone,” Janak said Friday. “Where’s all that stuff at? It’s crazy.”

Later, she would find a jug of hydraulic fluid — and someone else’s pontoon boat — on what remained of the town’s golf course. But their main building, and much of what it contained, had likely tumbled downstream.

Theirs wasn’t the only missing building. The wall of water had brutalized Niobrara’s west side, a low-lying commercial district, and the part of town closest to the river.

Jody Stark, the chair of the village board, listed the other casualties. Several buildings from a hay business? Gone. A state Department of Transportation garage? Gone. A Knox County road shop? Gone. The Mormon Bridge on Nebraska 12? Stark has video of the deck floating away. The Country Cafe? Still standing, but it had been nearly swallowed by water and ice, with maybe a foot of the roof visible at one point.

“A lot of buildings washed away,” he said. “They were pretty much swept right down the river and they’re in the Missouri somewhere.”

The good news? Almost all of the 300 or so residents of Niobrara live on higher ground, and weren’t directly hurt by the floodwaters…

Still, his town was struggling. The flooding compromised the town’s two wells, leaving its residents without a water supply, and the fire department was going door-to-door, filling containers. Getting in and out of town was also difficult; by Friday, the Standing Bear Bridge to South Dakota had reopened, and there was one passable gravel road south of town. Nebraska 14, the main route south out of Niobrara, was so strewn with ice it was only open for emergency travel.

The damage was unprecedented, Stark said, and worse than they had originally expected. But that was before they’d heard the Spencer Dam had failed and even more water was headed their way…

The Spencer Dam was a flow-through hydroelectric dam, with garage-type doors that let water through, and Becker said it wasn’t known whether the doors had been open or closed at the time. They disappeared downstream, he said.

Its breach triggered immediate and long-term problems. It swept away a Holt County house just downstream, and authorities were still searching for its owner.

“On March 14th at around 5 in the morning the dam on the niobrara river south of Spencer NE was overtaken by flooding and ice jams. 2 days prior to this there was significant snow melting. 1 day prior there was all day rain measuring 1-1.5 inches. The ground was still frozen from recent below normal temperatures. All that water broke loose ice chunks the size of cars and trucks. The dam was no match for this extreme force. The dam and the dike were both destroyed. The water then washed out Hwy 281 and flooding many communities downstream.” — Birkel Dirtwork

And the force of the flow severed the supply of water to the north, in Boyd County. Many of its 2,000 residents relied on the pipeline from Holt County that was buried beneath the river. Now that it’s gone, they don’t have the water they need for drinking, for livestock, for flushing.

They received a truckload of bottled water Friday, enough to last maybe a day, said Doug Fox, Boyd County’s emergency management coordinator. They need more…

And Boyd County was struggling to stay connected with the rest of the state. The failure of Spencer Dam took out a pair of routes over the Niobrara River, and the only ways out of Boyd County were north into South Dakota or west into Keya Paha County, Fox said.

Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit: Geology.com

Scottsbluff, #NE: Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water” to screen on March 2, 2019

Nebraska Rivers Shown on the Map: Beaver Creek, Big Blue River, Calamus River, Dismal River, Elkhorn River, Frenchman Creek, Little Blue River, Lodgepole Creek, Logan Creek, Loup River, Medicine Creek, Middle Loup River, Missouri River, Niobrara River, North Fork Big Nemaha River, North Loup River, North Platte River, Platte River, Republican River, Shell Creek, South Loup River, South Platte River, White River and Wood River. Nebraska Lakes Shown on the Map: Harlan County Lake, Hugh Butler Lake, Lake McConaughy, Lewis and Clark Lake and Merritt Reservoir. Map credit: Geology.com

From Farm & Ranch (Spike Jordan):

Water is a contradiction for Western Nebraska. It’s both seemingly abundant, yet simultaneously finite and scarce.

A new film by a local award-winning documentary filmmaker explores this contradiction and tells the story of water in the Panhandle, from the founding of the numerous irrigation and natural resources districts that line the North Platte valley, to the legal fights surrounding the regulation, distribution and control of that water.

Insight Creative Independent Productions Executive Producer and Director Becky McMillen’s “Rising Water,” was originally designed to be a web series, and viewers will get a first peek at it when the film premiers at the Legacy of the Plains Museum in Gering on Saturday, March 2, at 1 p.m. The screening of the documentary is in conjunction with The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street the Water/Ways” exhibit, which is open now until April 13 at Legacy.

“Everyone knows how to use YouTube, and they’ve gotten used to web series,” McMillan said. “They’re used to watching short pieces.”

In essence, each of the segments of the film is a self-contained documentary which covers a different facet of the story of our water, she said.

The hour and fifteen minute feature is the product of more than three solid years of work, with much of the footage and information gathered over a greater period of time. McMillen said that her father, Udell Hughes Sr., helped her with much of the technical research for the film. It also contains material gathered during production of McMillen’s last major project, “River of Time: Wyoming’s Evolving North Platte River,” a half-hour program which premiered on Wyoming PBS in November 2012.

“We’ve been sort of building up towards this film,” she said. “A lot of my historical research was actually done at Legacy of the Plains.”

The film contains interviews with managers of irrigation districts, farmers, UNL researchers and footage from public hearings concerning water issues.

“I knew that I needed to talk about the Ogallala Aquifer, but it took me a while to understand that issue,” McMillen said.

So she consulted UNL research hydrogeologist Jim Goeke, who is known as “Mr. Water.” Goeke researched the aquifer and arguably knows more about the water under our feet than any other human being.

McMillen said she was surprised by how candid Goeke.

“He gave me courage to address issues that probably weren’t very popular and won’t be very popular,” she said. “We have sucked so much water out of the aquifer and I’ve been watching the Pumpkin Creek battle for years, but lost track of it.”

The challenge for McMillen was to tie together the surface water and ground water portions of the story.

And it was a lawsuit over the little western Nebraska stream that became a big State Supreme Court case.

In 2009 The Spear T Ranch settled with more than a dozen upstream ranchers and farmers in a dispute between irrigators feuding over water in Pumpkin Creek.

“I was thinking about Pumpkin Creek, but I didn’t have any visuals,” she said. “I’d filmed a meeting of farmers years ago, but the camera went south on me and there was no way I could recover the footage.”

Then synchronicity struck. McMillen’s bookkeeper was from the Spear T Ranch, and the family over time had saved all of the newspaper clippings about the fight.

“That helped me tie it all together,” McMillen said. “You just have to be able to listen and when you hear something say ‘What was that?’”

And the hunger for investigative work is what fuels most of her projects.

“I have to tell myself to stop, take notes and check things out,” she said. “I hear stories all the time and I’d love to go chase them, but I have to be responsible and pay my bills.”

McMillen said a lot of the project has been self-funded because she couldn’t kick the habit once a lead seemed promising.

Newspapers also provided McMillen a window into the issues. As the “first draft of history,” clippings are featured at prominent portions of the film.

“The Star-Herald is in a lot of these stories that I brought back from the past,” she said. “There was so much information that really help me understand what was going on at the time.”

Another portion of the film is spent exploring contamination concerns, especially the 2015 fight against a Colorado company who sought permission to use an abandoned oil well in Sioux County as a wastewater disposal site. Sioux County landowners eventually won their appeal and state lawmakers reformed the process in which permits are granted.

“I documented almost everything, and there is a lot of that in there, along with newspaper clippings” she said. “The physical thing is really important, because I couldn’t have told any of this story without the work of reporters from back in the 1800s on to the present day.”

And those are the little things, McMillen said.

“I saw articles where they hung effigies of law makers because they were going to shut the water off,” she said. “There’s always a fight about water. One guy will say ‘I was here first,’ and another guy will say, ‘hey I need that.’ And just because you were here first doesn’t mean you get to have all of it.”

And over the course of making the film McMillen said that she’s learned that there needs to be change to protect and preserve not only the Valley’s greatest gift, but the way of life for Farmers and Ranchers who live here.

“We’re going to have to look beyond what we’re calling ‘traditional practices,’” she said. “We can continue on the same track that we have been. We can’t keep expanding and still be able to sustain that.”

It was her discussions with farmers that drove home the point for her.

“I think we need to look at it as growing food,” she said. “I would like us to grow more food that doesn’t have to be shipped, because we’re going to have to address climate change and reverse it.”

And at the same time, caution needs to be exercised when employing solutions, she said.

“What we think are the solutions are not always the best way of doing things,” she said. “We can’t just blindly forge ahead just because we think it’s a good idea. At the time we’re looking at sustainable energy, we’re also wanting to put it in places that will never be the same.

“We need to work within the infrastructure we already have and not go to condemning land so that we can use it for transmission lines or wind farms. There is plenty of space for that without tearing up areas that can’t be returned to their natural state.”

National Climate Assessment: Great Plains’ Ogallala Aquifer drying out — @NOAA

Ogallala Aquifer. This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward. Image credit: Nation Climate Assessment 2018

From NOAA (Michon Scott):

The Ogallala Aquifer underlies parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. From wheat and cows to corn and cotton, the regional economy depends almost exclusively on agriculture irrigated by Ogallala groundwater. But according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), producers are extracting water faster than it is being replenished, which means that parts of the Ogallala Aquifer should be considered a nonrenewable resource.

This map shows changes in Ogallala water levels from the period before the aquifer was tapped to 2015. Declining levels appear in red and orange, and rising levels appear in shades of blue. The darker the color, the greater the change. Gray indicates no significant change. Although water levels have actually risen in some areas, especially Nebraska, water levels are mostly in decline, namely from Kansas southward.

In the early twentieth century, farmers converted large stretches of the Great Plains from grassland to cropland. Drought and stress on the soils led to the 1930s Dust Bowl. Better soil conservation and irrigation techniques tamed the dust and boosted the regional economy. In 2007, the market value from the Ogallala region’s agricultural products totaled roughly $35 billion. However, well outputs in the central and southern parts of the aquifer are declining due to excessive pumping, and prolonged droughts have parched the area, bringing back Dust Bowl-style storms, according to the NCA4. Global warming is likely to make droughts across the Ogallala region longer lasting and more intense over the next 50 years.

The Agriculture chapter of NCA4 describes the risks and opportunities for resilience across the Ogallala region:

“Recent advances in precision irrigation technologies, improved understanding of the impacts of different dryland and irrigation management strategies on crop productivity, and the adoption of weather-based irrigation scheduling tools as well as drought-tolerant crop varieties have increased the ability to cope with projected heat stress and drought conditions under climate change. However, current extraction for irrigation far exceeds recharge in this aquifer, and climate change places additional pressure on this critical water resource.”

The Great #Kansas Aqueduct: Solution or Folly from a Bygone Era? — Water Finance & Management

Kansas Aqueduct route via Circle of Blue

From Water Finance & Management (Michael Warady):

In 1982, the Army Corps of Engineers released the Plains Ogallala Aquifer Regional Resources Study, which detailed for the first time (in any official capacity) the cost and opportunity related to the construction of a 360-mile concrete aqueduct beginning at the Missouri River in the Northeastern part of Kansas and ending in Utica – traveling nearly three-quarters of the way across the state. This aqueduct would deliver approximately 3.4 million acre-ft (AF) of water annually (1 acre-ft = 325,851 gallons) to parched farmers and communities. In turn, the canal would require 15 pumping stations in order to rise nearly 1,750 ft in altitude to reach its ultimate, Utica reservoir.

The cost? $18 billion up-front with an estimated $1 billion in annual ongoing expenses ($400 million in operational costs and $600 million in interest).
The costs are exorbitant – resulting in a $470/AF price of new water for farmers who, according to a 2013 report by the US Department of Agriculture, currently pay approximately $47/AF for off-farm purchased water. Can an agricultural industry with shrinking margins due to increased competition and international trade tariffs handle a 10x increase in water prices?

And yet, there remains something romantic about the Great Kansas Aqueduct. Arizona has its 336-mile Central Arizona Project; California has its 701-mile State Water Project; why shouldn’t Kansas have its Great Kansas Aqueduct? After all, as the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition has stated, “With sedimentation reducing water storage in the East, and the Ogallala being rapidly depleted in the West, Kansas stands to lose more than 37 percent of its water in 50 counties across the state by 2062, or an annual shortfall of 1.86 million acre-feet.”

Thirty-six years after this project was first conceived in full, though, shovels and backhoes remain in their sheds as the Ogallala aquifer drops nearly two feet per year in some counties due to groundwater over pumping. If groundwater withdrawals continue at current rates, most of southwest Kansas will exhaust its water reserves within 25 to 50 years. One tends to think that in times of yesteryear, individuals would have begun construction on this project in February of 1982, begging for forgiveness later. But the time of unbridled infrastructure construction has passed and Kansas continues to stress its water resources.

As one sits and considers the need for the Great Kansas Aqueduct, three questions come to mind: 1) does the Great Kansas Aqueduct solve a problem? Yes – it would increase water supplies for Western Kansas. 2) would it solve the problem for generations? Yes – it would likely be operational for decades. And 3) would it be cost-effective? Unfortunately, not. While the volume of water delivered to Western Kansas may increase, very few people would actually be able to afford it. In fact, the $18 billion estimated to build the Great Kansas Aqueduct does not even include the legal, economic, and ethical costs inherent to initiating eminent domain and forcibly removing people in the way of the canal off of their land.

Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Emily Benson):

Tens of thousands of people on the Navajo Nation lack running water in their homes. But that could change in the coming years, as the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project goes into effect. It’s expected to deliver water to the reservation and nearby areas by 2024, as part of a Navajo Nation water rights settlement with New Mexico, confirmed by Congress in 2009.

Survey work begins for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation via The High Country News

Three other Native water settlements currently await congressional approval. They arise from federal legal decisions recognizing that many tribes in the West hold water rights that largely pre-date — and therefore override — the water rights of non-Native settlers.

Many tribal nations are currently asserting those rights as a way to ensure economic vitality, affirm sovereignty and provide basic services that some communities lack. In many places, however, Native water rights have yet to be quantified, making them difficult to enforce. Settlement is usually the preferred remedy; it’s cheaper, faster and less adversarial than a lawsuit, and can include funding for things like pipelines or treatment plants. With settlements, “the tribes are able to craft solutions that work for them and that can be more flexible than anything that could be achieved through litigation,” says Kate Hoover, a principal attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice water rights unit.

Once negotiations are complete, Congress has to confirm the settlements. Here are the three introduced in the Senate this session:

Pipes are laid for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project on the Navajo Nation. Photo credit: Northwest New Mexico Council of Governments via The High Country News

THE SETTLEMENT: Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement allocates 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water per year from the Central Arizona Project to the 2,300-member Hualapai Nation. It also authorizes federal spending for a water pipeline to Peach Springs, the reservation’s main residential community, and Grand Canyon West, an economically important tourist destination featuring a horseshoe-shaped “skywalk” jutting out over the canyon.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: The legality of Native water rights settlements stems from a 1908 U.S. Supreme Court case involving agricultural irrigation. Winters v. United States established that when reservations were created, they included an implied right to water.

Subsequent legal decisions confirmed that so-called “reserved water” could also be used for livestock, drinking water and even commercial purposes. That’s crucial for this settlement, because the Hualapai Nation plans to use a portion of their water to expand Grand Canyon West — and their economy. “We have done everything possible to provide jobs and income to our people in order to lift them out of poverty — but the lack of a secure and replenishable water supply on our Reservation is our major obstacle to achieving economic self-sufficiency,” wrote Damon Clarke, chairman of the Hualapai Nation, in testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

THE SETTLEMENT: Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement affirms the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre-feet of water each year — enough to serve about 160,000 households — from the Utah portion of the San Juan River, a Colorado River tributary. In addition, it would establish funds for treating and transporting drinking water.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: In many Native water rights settlements, tribes agree to give up a portion of the water to which they’re entitled — often allowing other groups to continue using that water, which might otherwise have been cut off — in return for expensive water projects, typically built by a federal agency.

The Navajo Utah settlement is different: It would transfer money directly to the tribe for water infrastructure. During a U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in December, Russell Begaye, the president of the Navajo Nation, explained why the tribe, rather than the U.S. government, should lead the work: “It’s important as a sovereign nation that we are able to do that — employ our people, use our laws — in order to build and construct any kind of construction that may take place.”

THE SETTLEMENT: Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas Water Rights Settlement

THE TAKEAWAY: This settlement confirms the right of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas to pull 4,705 acre-feet of water per year from the Delaware River Basin in northeastern Kansas. It would be a milestone in resolving long-standing disagreements over how to ensure the tribe has reliable water, even during droughts.

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Kansas, like much of the West, is prone to drought. This settlement would help the Kickapoo deal with dry periods by allowing the tribe to store more than 18,000 acre-feet of water in a reservoir that has yet to be built, but that has been contemplated for at least 40 years. A dispute over how to acquire the private land that the reservoir would flood led to a 2006 lawsuit, and, eventually, to settlement negotiations, which concluded in 2016.

Experts say it’s not unusual for settlements to take years or even decades to complete, and that securing congressional approval requires balance. “Ultimately, these settlements are political instruments,” says Steven Moore, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund and an advisor to the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas. “You really have to work these settlements out so that it’s a win-win for everybody.”

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at High Country News.

This article was published in the June 22, 2018 print edition of High Country News.