One Small Step for Native American Water Rights
In early January, the unthinkable happened for hundreds of households in the Rio Verde suburb of Phoenix: Their water was cut off. Families in the cactus-pocked desert foothills were forced to skip showers, use paper plates, and haul laundry elsewhere. The nearby city of Scottsdale had supplied water deliveries to the community for years, but officials there decided they had to conserve more water to serve their own residents.
Amid historic western water shortages and a 20-year drought, for years some have expressed interest in helping meet demand for water where there is not enough to go around: Native American tribes. The reality, however, is that outdated federal law prevents many tribes from leasing their water off reservation.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden signed legislation backed by Sens. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz) that grants the Colorado River Indian Tribes authority to do something that many other Americans can: lease their water rights to others. While the law is welcome progress, Congress should act now to give all western tribes full authority over their water rights. Native Americans deserve that authority on principle. More practically speaking, it would allow them to realize the full value of their rights while helping off-reservation water users who would be willing to bargain for more of the increasingly scarce resource.
Forty million people across seven states rely on the Colorado River to drink, bathe, wash, irrigate, and use water generally. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that reservation treaties nominally granted Native Americans some of the oldest rights to the river’s water. But treaties did not quantify or codify those rights, leaving them unclear and unenforceable for decades. Some tribes have successfully used courts and subsequent negotiations between the federal government, states, and other water users—a process that takes 22 years on average—to quantify and gain meaningful access to their rights.
Today, western tribes collectively hold “paper rights” to roughly a quarter of the Colorado River’s annual flow. Those rights, however, remain severely limited. For one thing, many tribes lack the proper infra
Article from Reason.com