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Water rights for tribes is environmental justice

Colorado River August 19, 2007 Photo by Central Arizona Project

Colorado River
August 19, 2007
Photo by Central Arizona Project

This month, the comment period for a potentially landmark piece of legislation ended. Since California v. Arizona in 2000, the Colorado River Indian Tribes have the sole rights to more than 600,000 acres-feet of water from the Colorado River, but they are barred from selling or leasing any of this water to outside communities.

Isaac Humrich

Isaac Humrich

The proposed federal legislation, led by the tribes themselves, would allow them to lease some of this water as long as they reduce their own water consumption by an equivalent amount. This bill will not only empower native communities to use the resources they are entitled to, but it will also represent a significant step in the preservation of the Colorado River by ensuring a more efficient use of Arizona’s water resources.

It seems obvious that an organization given the sole right to use a resource should be able to use that resource for their own benefit. Unfortunately for the tribes, the obviousness of the situation only adds to the cruelty of the joke. Tribal water should be some of the most valuable in the West, and yet they are entirely barred from capitalizing on the value.

The consequences of this aren’t imaginary – they are lived out by members of the tribes every day. Per capita tribal income is a mere $16,000 per year, a full $10,000 dollars per year less than the average Arizonian. Water leases, however, provide a solution to this poverty. If the government were to allow the tribes to lease their water, it would inject much needed cash into the local economy, raising the standard of living and spurring commercial growth.

But, economic development isn’t the bill’s only benefit. It also has the ability to help solve one of the West’s most pressing issues: water rights. By 2040, the flow of the Colorado River will be low enough to consistently threaten hydroelectric power generation. By 2060, Western states will draw 3.2 million more acre feet of water than the Colorado produces, a deficit greater than Arizona and Nevada’s water allotment combined. The draft bill would change that. 

A revolutionary effect of the legislation is that it incentivizes conservation. Because water supply would be an economic commodity, the tribes will have every reason to be frugal with that water, turning every gallon saved into a dollar earned.

This incentive could mean that unproductive land lies fallow, saving vast quantities of water without significantly reducing crop yield. However, it will also extend to water conservation projects that would otherwise be impossible. Modernized canal systems and subsurface drip irrigation would otherwise be far too costly to justify at the moment, but these new economic incentives will make these programs profitable.

There is still much work to be done in order for this legislation to be considered by Congress. However, with a new president comes new opportunities, both for the people of this country and the incoming administration. If President Biden wants to pass meaningful environmental legislation within his first 100 days, then there is a prime candidate: the Colorado River Indian Tribes Leasing Agreement. 

Isaac Humrich, a senior at Sunnyslope High School in Phoenix,is a member of American Conservation Coalition.


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