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Tribes assert water rights on Colorado River Basin

1922 compact that divided resources between states left out Native Americans
The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes have water rights in Lake Nighthorse near Durango. (Journal file)

The Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes of Southwest Colorado are fighting for water, including an effort to reclaim rights flowing downstream to other users.

Ute Mountain Chairman Manuel Heart and Southern Ute Council member Lorelei Cloud presented their perspectives and plans for water management during a session of the Southwestern Water Conservation District’s annual meeting last week in Durango.

The tribes were not invited to the discussions when the states and federal government divided water rights in the West during the early 20th century.

Native Americans did not gain U.S. citizenship until two years after the 1922 Colorado River Compact divided Colorado River water between upper and lower basins.

While the 1922 Compact itself is not being renegotiated, water shortage plans that guide the compact are under review by the Bureau of Reclamation, including the 2007 Interim Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan, which are set to expire in 2026.

This time, tribes are asserting their water rights and demanding to be included in negotiations on how Colorado River Basin water is managed.

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart and Southern Ute Council member Lorelei Cloud talked about protecting Native American water rights in the Colorado River Basin during the Southwestern Water Conservation District annual seminar April 1 in Durango. (Jim Mimiaga/The Journal)

Thirty tribes within the Colorado River Basin hold 25% of the water rights, but some of the water has not been available for use or has not been recognized as tribe-owned.

“When the laws were made, we were not included; we were an afterthought. We know (tribes) have 25% or more of that water,” Cloud said. “If tribes were to put that water to use, it will be a major impact for those downstream who have been using it for free. As tribes put our water to use, there will be less water down river.”

Cloud said the Southern Ute Tribe has 129,000 acre-feet per year of federally reserved water rights on seven rivers that run through its reservation, but it only has the capacity to divert 40,600 acre-feet per year. The tribe stores water in Vallecito, Lemon and Lake Nighthorse reservoirs.

The tribe recently built a reservoir to store water for its water-treatment plant, which serves 500 households, many of which are nontribal homes in the checkerboard area of the reservation that includes private and tribal lands.

The new reservoir allows for a 30-day reserve, up from a one-day reserve. Water storage at the treatment plant is critical because it is served by the tribe’s junior water rights on the Pine River, which are vulnerable to calls from senior right holders.

The smaller reserve has left 64 tribal households without water.

“They still have to haul water or have it delivered at a very high price,” Cloud said. “I grew up in a house without running water, and that is still a normal part of life for many tribal members on the reservation.”

In a historic meeting on March 28 in Albuquerque, 20 tribes, including Utes, met with U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to discuss their involvement with Colorado River Basin water negotiations. Haaland is the first Native American appointed to the post.

Cloud said tribes are now at the table to provide input about the Drought Response Operation Agreement set by the Bureau of Reclamation. The guidelines determine how water is released from Colorado River storage reservoirs.

“Tribes now have the ability to participate in the development of language that guides the DROA process. Previously, we were not included in that language,” Cloud said.

With water shortages looming, now is the time for tribes to determine the best use for their unused water supply.

“Our Tribal Council has developed a new water use operations team because the tribe desires to put federal reserve water rights to use on and off the reservation to benefit the tribe and state of Colorado,” Cloud said.

She said that under the current 2007 guidelines of the Colorado River Basin Compact, unused tribal water rights flow into Lake Powell.

“One hundred years ago, tribes were completely left out and dismissed during the development of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. As tribes gain recognition and the respect we deserve – with 25% of the allocations of the supply – our participation in the next management framework can only improve and strengthen the relationship between water-right holders in the basin as we deal with a future of reduced water supply.”

In an email to The Journal regarding development of the 2026 Interim Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan, Bureau of Reclamation Public Affairs Officer Becki Bryant stated, “Our goal is to develop a robust public involvement approach that will appropriately include meaningful and timely engagement with the Basin States, tribes, partners, and stakeholders to ensure their objectives and priorities are considered.”

‘This is our aboriginal land’

Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart said his tribe is also continuing its fight for water rights. He is chairman of the 10 Tribe Partnership, a coalition of tribes working to protect their water rights and provide input on Colorado River Basin water management.

The Ute Mountain Ute reservation stretches across Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. Tribe officials have quantified its water rights in Colorado and are working to quantify its New Mexico and Utah rights.

Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprises water tanks store water for land and livestock. The tribe had only 10% of its supply last year because of the drought and had to fallow fields. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

“That is our aboriginal land. Historically, tribes have been excluded from decisions that failed to account for tribal water rights,” Heart said. “It is imperative that all future water management fully account for undeveloped water rights. This compact (renegotiation) cannot move forward until the tribe’s water is quantified. We play a major role.”

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe holds 16,525 acre-feet of water in Lake Nighthorse in Durango as part of the Animas-La Plata Project, but has no access to it.

Heart said interstate limitations on how the water can be delivered have been frustrating.

The tribe has proposed releasing its water from Lake Nighthorse into the Animas River, where it would flow to the San Juan River and reach the Ute Mountain reservation at the Four Corners. From there, it could be pumped up to the reservation for use.

But the compact laws don’t allow for the tribe’s water to cross into New Mexico, Heart said.

Other options are being explored. One is to develop infrastructure to deliver Ute Mountain water in Lake Nighthorse west to the La Plata River near the reservation’s eastern border. The Ute Mountain Tribe has storage rights in Long Hollow Reservoir on the La Plata River.

Or the tribe’s Lake Nighthorse water could be delivered west to the Mancos River, where it would flow south to the reservation, Heart said. It could be stored in a new reservoir built on the reservation that would allow the tribe to control its own water.

The Ute Mountain Tribe is looking at all options to access its water rights. It receives water rights from McPhee Reservoir for the Ute Farm and Ranch, which had just 10% of its allocated water last year because drought shortages.

Heart said it was encouraging to see tribes working together with state and federal agencies to have a say in water management in the Colorado River Basin.

“We were not even recognized as U.S. citizens until after the 1922 compact. Tribes were left out. One hundred years later, we are talking about including tribes,” he said. “We have to find ways to work together.”


This article was updated to clarify that the 1922 Colorado River Basin Compact is not being renegotiated. The 2007 Interim Guidelines and Drought Contingency Plan that guide the 1922 Compact management during water shortages are set to expire in 2026 and are under review for renewal.

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