Colorado River conference hears calls for tribal inclusion as crisis deepens
A big conference about the shrinking Colorado River – the main source of water for millions of people in the Southwest – began this week in Las Vegas. Discussions among dozens of scientists and government officials focused on the West’s historic drought.
The Colorado River Basin is in dire straits. Opening remarks at the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting focused on the severe and prolonged drought that’s brought two of the nation’s largest reservoirs to their lowest levels on record.
The first day of the three-day conference also heard calls for more collaboration and less infighting among Western states and tribes who rely on the river. But Christopher Tabbee, a councilman for the Ute Indian Tribe, said that currently isn’t the case in his home state of Utah.
“Anything that has to do with water, we’ve been totally blocked out,” he said. “We’ve never been consulted on any decisions.”
The Utes have treaty rights to a significant amount of Colorado River water. But Tabbee said Utah is ignoring those rights and using some of that water. A new report from the nonprofit environmental group Utah Rivers Council suggests the state is using about half of the tribes’ allocated water.
“The only water left in the state of Utah is tribal water and they’re using that water, too,” Tabbee said.
The Utah River Councils report also suggests that, overall, Utah and other states in the Upper Colorado River Basin are using more water than they are currently allowed. That overuse is likely to only grow as the changing climate continues to deplete river flows across the basin.
Gene Shawcroft, the Utah representative for the Upper Colorado River Commission, pushed back on that report. He pointed out that Utah and other upper basin states such as Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico have made their required water deliveries to the lower basin states.
“The important thing to recognize is that this claim of overuse is not scientifically based,” he said. “I don't know how we're overusing it when we have delivered more ... than what we are obligated to deliver.”
Shawcroft also noted that the state has created a new agency devoted to the crisis, the Colorado River Authority, and would invite tribes to join advisory councils, which have not been formed yet. Critics have pointed out that the agency doesn’t include any tribal members on its board.
Across the Colorado River Basin – home to 30 federally recognized Native American tribes – tribal leaders are pushing for a more significant seat at the table in water negotiations. In October, as the White House hosted a summit of tribal nations, a group of 20 tribes within the basin wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland asking for an “integral role” in the next round of river negotiations.
In the letter, tribal leaders said they were “cautiously optimistic” that they’ll be recognized as separate sovereigns on the same footing as states in the basin. Those 30 tribes hold rights to about a quarter of the river’s average annual flow, though many lack the infrastructure or funding to use their full allotments.
In Las Vegas on Tuesday, Becky Mitchell, director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said her state is committed to involving tribes in future negotiations. Looming over this conference is the need to establish new guidelines for managing the river, as the current set of rules expires in 2026.
“Creating a framework for this engagement should be the first step as the negotiations begin,” Mitchell said.