Western Water Before Settler Colonialism

The two largest rivers in western North America are the Rio Grande and Colorado, and both have been experiencing increased dryness since the 2000s. These rivers are also critically important sources of drinking water for a combined 46 million people living in the area and have substantial agricultural and industrial uses.

The importance of these rivers means that any reforms or changes in the treaties that govern them to address river dryness are often highly contentious. Divisions over how the rivers should be managed exist between many different groups such as individual US states, tribal governments, and the Mexican and US federal governments, not to mention many non-governmental organizations focused on environmental issues.

However, Native American tribes and other Indigenous communities in the US have historically been and continue to be denied a seat at the table when deciding how to allocate vital water. This is despite tribes and communities from this region being the ones primarily engaged in sustainable water usage practices. One example of how Native Americans in this region maintained the health of local environments through sustainable modes for centuries before settlers came is the Ancestral Puebloans who managed a large area of the southwest as an agricultural-based society in an arid climate. In addition, many other tribes were more nomadic and did not rely on continuous water supply compared to the very sedentary agricultural settlers of the colonial US. All this knowledge was put to waste as colonial forces and policies would change the landscape of the southwest.

Colonization and the Erasure of Indigenous Water Practices

The colonization of western North America by the United States in the 1800s brought new ideas of ownership and rights over river access to different political actors such as the states that entered the union. The creation of new treaties with Mexico in order to guarantee delivery of water to the northern Mexican states bordering the Rio Grande meant that there was a significant restructuring of who could access river waters. 

The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 that shifted all of southwestern North America to the United States did not include the same provisions for the Native American tribes that were granted to others living in the region, nor were they even guaranteed US citizenship until 76 years later in 1924. As such, from the very beginning of the US presence in the Southwest, there have been limited ways for Native American communities to fight for their right to water and other important resources.

The US government originally claimed to support a policy of cooperation with Native American nations, seeing as they were the original inhabitants and sovereign nations under the law. That meant it was required for the US to purchase the land from the different tribes through official mechanisms. Over the course of the last 200 years, however, that relationship of tentative diplomacy between nations broke down as the Americans did not uphold their commitment to treaties and instead continued a campaign of violence and expansion.

However, Indigenous rights to their land still existed in US law throughout that time. Unfortunately, this did not prevent purchase agreements from being violated or undervalued at the very best of times. Often genocide and violence were the pretexts of the US governments’ and tribal representatives’ meetings to discuss the purchase of land.

As such, in more recent years, many Native American tribes still hold ownership of land that has rights to the water flowing through it, which should legally give them the right to help manage the Colorado and the Rio Grande rivers.

Asymmetrical Water Management and Use

While there are currently 52 tribes that have water rights to the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, there has been no formal consultation about how best to manage and share water among any of the parties in charge of managing the river. Currently, the collective use of treaties, laws, supreme court decisions, and more make up what is known as the “law of the river,” but because most of the land the rivers flow through has changed control through colonization and conquest, it means that the power dynamics often favor the US rather than Mexico. Examples of this are the Hoover and Glenn Canyon dams that both hold immense amounts of collected water in the US states before it ever reaches Mexican states.

Under US law, Native American nations and tribes have the most senior rights to the rivers, however, access to them is often second to the states that were created at the expense of native land. Because of this, many Native American communities are too often without clean drinking water. For example, it was estimated one in ten Indigenous Americans did not have access to clean water due to poor infrastructure in their communities.

Many other uses of the land in industrial, mining, or agricultural projects have become accessible to Native American communities and nations, but rivers are often more complicated due to their interstate flow and commodification in the dry western region of North America. Many experts of the time thought the major rivers would be able to sustain large agricultural communities for many years to come. Unfortunately, the data used was from years in which the western US had historical amounts of precipitation, thus inflating the actual amount of water states could get. It was then exacerbated by climate change heating up the weather that has decreased the amount of rainfall.

All of this change in land use was done without any formal consultation or consideration for Native American tribes at the time, especially as many were being forced onto reservations away from their homelands. In total, overburdening water resources and moving Indigenous communities away from homes and the best water resources began the process of rapid depletion of vital water in the west due to climate change and overuse.

This means that, while they should have the largest say, there is often no input allowed from Native American tribes when it comes to river management. However, this may change with the promotion of Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe, who is now in charge of the Department of the Interior. As the Department holds power on policies of water access, it may mean that the US government will become more receptive to input from Native American nations that have agreed to settlements. Otherwise, the nations would have to go through court proceedings in order to gain water access that they’ve been waiting for for years. Settlements include funding for clean water infrastructure and maintenance of existing infrastructure for water management.

The Path Back to Sustainability and Justice

While there are many ways to better amplify Native American voices in water management decisions on the Rio Grande and the Colorado rivers, the election of more Native American state and federal officials could give a larger platform to their communities and increase the speed at which water access is acknowledged and addressed.

Another strategy that is being used is the coalescence of Native American groups consolidating their rights and working in conjunction to better influence the decisions made on water access and use. For example, the Colorado River Basin Tribes Partnership is an organization made up of 10 tribes with water access. Some of their biggest projects are creating awareness of historical rights to Colorado water, creating studies on water levels, and assisting in the development of water access infrastructure.

Another example of this leadership in protecting scarce water is the Jicarilla Apache Nation’s decision to lease more water to the State of New Mexico for strengthening water security and ensuring the safety of endangered species reliant on river water. Finally, another coalition by the Colorado River Basin Tribes works to raise awareness at the federal level of how the federal government could better pool its departments’ resources with communities that are taking the lead in protecting water resources in the west. They created a significant report of how best this could be done with the support of many federal legislators. 

Due to the historical and ongoing discrimination towards Native Americans, the management and control of the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers do not adequately include them. As the rivers continue to dry up due to climate change, the inclusion of Native American nations and their knowledge of sustainable water management will grow even more important.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...