Federal and state officials have promised more tribal inclusion on the next round of negotiating the operating guidelines for the Colorado River, but what exactly that will look like is still unclear.
On June 16, the Bureau of Reclamation released a notice of intent (NOI), which formally advanced the process for the development of new operating guidelines for the nation’s two largest reservoirs, Lake Powell and Lake Mead. In the document, Reclamation says that during the upcoming guidelines negotiations, it intends to develop an approach that facilitates and enhances tribal engagement and inclusivity. Officials say they will also prioritize regular, meaningful and robust consultation with tribal nations.
“Existing forums and groups will be continued and leveraged, such as the monthly Reclamation-hosted Tribal Information Exchanges,” the NOI reads. “Reclamation is also exploring options for increasing tribal involvement through the potential development of new groups and forums.”
Tribes have historically been largely excluded from policy talks and some have said they only learn about decisions made by the seven states and federal government after the fact.
U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton previewed the NOI the week before it was released, speaking at a law conference on natural resources at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“We are looking to stand up a forum in which we are engaging with tribal nations,” she said. “There will be a specific framework how we engage with the tribes.”
A Reclamation spokesperson said they don’t have any details to add at this time about what the framework will look like beyond Touton’s comments.
The Colorado River basin’s 30 tribes have rights to use about 25% of the water, a percentage that is slowly increasing as river flows decline overall due to drought and climate change. And most of their rights are senior to nearly all other water users in the basin.
Although they were not included in the Colorado River Compact that divided the river, giving half of the flows to the upper basin and half to the lower basin, the 1908 Winters Doctrine reserved water rights for tribes. The doctrine established tribes’ water rights on the same date the federal government established their reservation, but not the amount of water to which they were entitled.
Tribes have had to quantify and settle their water rights within their states and tribal water comes out of each state’s allocation from the Colorado River. Unlike other water users, tribes don’t have to put the water to beneficial use to hang onto the rights for future development. That means there are unquantified water rights out there on paper that have never been used, although some tribes say they still fully intend to develop their water.
But in an already over-allocated system, any new water project that takes more from the Colorado River could be problematic. Tribes’ unused water has been propping up the system for years, and when finally put to beneficial use, it could exacerbate shortages for other water users.
“Water that is undeveloped tribal water rights is sitting in Powell and being used in some way, shape or form at some point,” said Becky Mitchell, commissioner to the Upper Colorado River Commission. “Somebody else is benefiting from it. Who benefits from continuing the way that we have, that’s the question we need to ask ourselves.”
The seven basin states — Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona and Nevada — negotiated the current interim guidelines for reservoir operations in 2007, and the guidelines are set to expire at the end of 2026. Developed in response to drought conditions in the first years of the century, the 2007 guidelines set shortage tiers based on reservoir levels and spelled out which states in the lower basin would take shortages and by how much their water deliveries would be cut in dry years.
Every component of the 2007 guidelines — and then some — is up for renegotiation as water managers figure out river management post-2026, said Anne Castle, a federal appointee and chair of the Upper Colorado River Commission. Castle is also on the leadership team for the Colorado River Basin Water & Tribes Initiative.
“There’s also discussion about broadening the scope of what will be considered in this set of guidelines,” she said. “That could include environmental benefit for the river. It could include development of undeveloped tribal rights. It could include a number of things that have not been previously part of the river operations plumbing discussion.”
One thing on which many agree is the need for tribes’ structural inclusion, meaning their seat at the table will be formally guaranteed and won’t be dependent on the promises of individual state or federal officials who could be replaced at the whims of a new administration. Tribal inclusion was a focus of the CU conference and included a panel discussion with representatives of 14 of the 30 tribes from across the basin.
“We really want tribes to be part of the negotiations and the discussions and the development of the post-2026 operational guidelines and we want this to be institutionalized as well,” Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado, said as a panelist at the CU conference.
“Having a formal process is what’s needed,” said Cloud, a director on the Colorado Water Conservation Board, representing the San Miguel/Dolores/Animas and San Juan river basins. “It didn’t happen in 1922 or before, so we know it really needs to be in writing as we go forward.”
How to do it
Each tribe is a sovereign government with their own unique water issues, which creates challenges when trying to include everyone.
“If you know one tribe, you know one tribe,” said Daryl Vigil, co-director of the Water & Tribes Initiative, water administrator for the Jicarilla Apache Nation and panel moderator at the CU conference. “To think there’s an Indian solution really dishonors that individuality and uniqueness of those tribes.”
In 2020, the Water & Tribes Initiative released a report called “Toward a Sense of the Basin: Designing a Collaborative Process to Develop the Next Set of Guidelines for the Colorado River System.” In it, the report’s writers set out potential options for tribal participation, including a Sovereign Review Team (SRT) and a Tribal Advisory Council (TAC). An SRT would consist of federal, state and tribal representatives; would treat tribes as equal players with the states and federal government; and would be an advisory group and the main forum to receive input from stakeholders and the public. A TAC would include representatives from each of the 30 tribes in the basin.
“One of the real issues is how do you choose tribal representatives that would represent more than their own tribe. That’s very problematic,” Castle said. “But at the same time, it’s recognized that having representatives of seven states and 30 tribes sitting in a room is a logistical problem and difficult to have meaningful discussions with that many people. There are logistical issues that need to be talked about further and worked out.”
Representatives from the upper basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) and upper basin tribes have been meeting over the past year, usually on tribal territory, partly in an effort to strengthen relationships between water managers. Vigil said that representatives from the group of 14 tribes, known as the basin tribal coalition, have also been meeting over the past year with the seven basin states to talk about collaboration. He said his hope is that tribes will also have to be signatories, along with the seven basin states and the federal government, on governing policy documents — such as the post-2026 guidelines — regarding river operations.
“Tribes understand that this is probably one of the most important components in terms of the forward movement of water policy in the basin: to have structural inclusion in the decision-making process,” he said.
Mitchell said tribal inclusion and engagement is a top priority for her going into the negotiations. Her commitment to the tribes includes communication, consultation and coordination on decision-making, she said.
“I view their involvement as critical and imperative to the success of the post-2026 reservoir operations negotiations,” Mitchell said. “It’s no secret when the compact was signed in 1922, no tribes were involved, consulted or even informed. I cannot alone correct that, but we can do better and we should do better, and we have a responsibility to do better.”
Colorado has two tribal nations, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Utes. They both settled their water rights with the state in 1986. But that doesn’t mean they can put their water to beneficial use. The Southern Ute Indian Tribe has about 38,000 acre-feet of stored water for municipal and industrial use in Lake Nighthorse, part of the Bureau of Reclamation’s Animas-La Plata project. But because of a lack of infrastructure and high operation and maintenance costs, they haven’t been able to access it.
“In a perfect world, I want to see the federal government fulfill its obligations to the tribal nations,” Mitchell said. “That includes its responsibility to consult with the tribes on a sovereign to sovereign basis and to support the tribes in accessing and utilizing their water resources.”