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Heeding a Spiritual and Sacred Call to Protect the Colorado River

August 8, 2019
Native American tribes are seeking a greater voice as stewards of a river that’s been home for millennia

Water is life. Water is the giver and sustainer of life.

For Daryl Vigil, a member of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in northern New Mexico, these words hold deep cultural, spiritual and personal meaning.

They are drawn from a vision statement that Daryl and leaders of the Ten Tribes Partnership, a coalition of tribes in the Colorado River basin, wrote five years ago to guide them in efforts to gain a greater voice for Native Americans in how the river’s water is used and conserved.

Daryl Vigil

“As Native Americans, our traditional interaction with rivers has always been one of reverence,” Daryl says. “We have understood this is the only Earth we have and that water is sacred. So we took what we needed and we made sure that if we took too much, we gave back what we didn’t need.”

It’s an ethos every water user in the basin would do well to embrace. The Colorado provides water for nearly 40 million people and is key to the economic and environmental health of seven U.S. states and two states in Mexico.

It also the lifeblood of 26 federally recognized tribes living on 29 Indian reservations within the basin’s 244,000-square-mile territory.

For millennia, the river has shaped the culture and lifestyle of native peoples.

But as the West was settled and developed – and as demands on the river increased – tribes were left out of water management decisions and have not seen the benefits derived from laws governing water use in the West.

Daryl’s mission is to change that. As water administrator for the Jicarilla tribe, temporary executive director for the Ten Tribes Partnership, and co-facilitator of the Water & Tribes Initiative, he is leading efforts to develop a process for Colorado River water use decisions that is more inclusive of tribes. He is also helping tribes build capacity to develop their own water rights.

Collectively, Native American tribes in the basin have 2.9 million acre feet of quantifiable water rights – roughly 20% of the system’s water – with many water claims still unresolved.

Tribal water rights are also among the most senior in the basin, giving tribes the potential to play a major role in balancing supply and demand for water as well as restoring the river’s environmental health.

In a policy brief, the Water & Tribes Initiative described the exclusion of tribes from decisions about the river’s management as a “socio-economic and environmental injustice.”

“Almost across the board, everyone is now saying tribes need to be at the table,” Daryl says. “If any other entity had (rights to) that volume of water, they’d be at the head of the table.”

Tribes face myriad challenges constraining their ability to develop economic benefit from the river. A lack of water infrastructure – such as dams, reservoirs, conveyance and irrigation – means many are underutilizing their rights on the river, essentially allowing other users to access tribal water for free.

For some tribes, such as the Navajo Nation, one of the Ten Tribes members, it’s a struggle just to provide their own residents with a safe, secure water supply.

“They have to haul water on a daily basis,” says Daryl. “Their development of water rights is really about providing water to their people.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Gila River Indian Community has demonstrated the value tribes can bring to water management decisions. The community played a major role in successful water conservation negotiations for the new Drought Contingency Plan.

Several tribes are actively exploring the potential for developing water markets to share, or lease, water to other river users.

“Our strategy is to help tribes build capacity,” says Daryl.

The Walton Family Foundation, along with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, is supporting the Water & Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin.

The intent of the initiative, which is co-facilitated by Daryl and Matthew McKinney, is to enhance the capacity of tribes to advance their needs and interests with respect to water and advance sustainable water management through collaborative decision-making. This work includes helping the Ten Tribes Partnership write their first strategic plan.

The foundation wants to ensure that the oldest water rights in the basin are well-represented and respected in future basin-wide policy discussions and decisions.

In everything that the Ten Tribes Partnership and the Water & Tribes Initiative is doing, Daryl says they are mindful of their vision as stewards of the river.

It calls on them to “lead from a spiritual mandate to ensure that this sacred water will always be protected and be available” and carry out their “responsibility of protecting the delicate, beautiful, balance of Mother Earth for the benefit of all living creatures” on the river.

“That holds us to account about who we are going to be in this process, as native human beings,” Daryl says.

“We want to make sure the river is available for our children and those who come after us. I think that’s our personal responsibility as human beings, to ensure we protect what it is that gives us life.”

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