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Horseshoe Bend At Sunset - Colorado River, Arizona

Tribal Expertise, Engagement is Critical to the West’s Water Future

May 4, 2021
We’re committed to helping tribal communities achieve their aspirations for protection and restoration of Colorado River water

The Colorado River has shaped the culture and lifestyle of Native peoples in the American West for thousands of years.

In a dry land, the river sustained all the living things tribes needed for their own survival. Communities understood the sacred value of water because of its scarcity. They are the West’s first water managers.

Yet despite their vast knowledge of water issues, acquired over millennia, Indian tribes have historically been left on the sidelines as decisions were made about how to manage the Colorado River.

That’s changing – tribes played a catalytic role in securing a seven-state deal in 2019 to stave off severe drought – but not fast enough.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we believe the expertise and perspective of tribal communities is essential to improving water management in the Colorado River basin.

In our new five-year strategy, we’re committed to expanding our engagement with tribes, building trust and investing in tribal capacity, so they can achieve the aspirations their communities have for the protection and restoration of water resources.

Policy made without tribes will not only damage Native communities – which are 19 times more likely than white households to lack a safe and adequate water supply – it will ultimately hurt all 40 million of the people who rely on the Colorado River every day.

CO River 2.9 million acre feet Native American GIF

Conversely, inclusive decision-making will strengthen water governance, leading to greater benefits to society and the environment.

While it is essential that tribal voices are heard when water policy is made, we also recognize that water access is a priority for those who do not have it. That is why we are pushing for universal access to clean water in collaboration with tribal interests.

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.

Building partnerships with tribal communities starts with building trust.

Because tribal water rights are also among the most senior in the basin, tribes can help balance supply and demand for water, as well as restoring the river’s environmental health.

Tribes also have a wealth of knowledge and insight that can better inform water decisions. They have developed and refined water conservation and agriculture practices that have a positive impact and have been passed down from generation to generation.

Building partnerships with tribal communities starts with building trust.

At the foundation, we plan to spend more time listening to – and learning from – tribal communities whose members are closest to the challenges around water, and closest to the solutions.

We will maintain a commitment to transparency to ensure tribal partners understand the foundation’s objectives. We will never claim to represent tribal interests or speak for tribes themselves. This is not our role.

We will support their push for a more inclusive process for water management at the local, state and federal levels – while also working to create a more level playing field by helping tribes increase their capacity to engage in decision making. We look forward to engaging with tribes as they define shared priorities on water issues and begin building the institutions that strengthen their role in the region’s decision making.

Throughout the Colorado River basin, tribes are leading by example.

Some of this work has already begun. Over the past five years, the foundation has embraced several tribal efforts to develop their water rights and increase water security and conservation.

Throughout the Colorado River basin, tribes are leading by example.

In 2017, the Gila River Indian Community worked with their regional partners to conserve 40,000 acre-feet of the community’s water through the elimination of system losses and reduction in demand through increased efficiency. This voluntary, measurable reduction of Colorado River water was an important step forward in the region to increase storage levels in Lake Mead and a demonstration of Gila River Indian Community’s leadership and commitment to collaboration throughout the river basin.

Tribes also helped seal the deal for the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan, which will save up to 1.1 million acre-feet of river water annually. The Gila River Indian Community agreed to lease some of its water to Phoenix and Tucson, while the Colorado River Indian Tribes maintained water levels in Lake Mead by temporarily putting some of its cropland into fallow.

The foundation also supports the Water & Tribes Initiative, an ad-hoc tribal and non-tribal water partnership, which aims to facilitate broader conversations and seed ideas that can advance sustainable water management.

In all, the foundation currently partners with eight tribes or tribal-affiliated groups throughout Colorado and Arizona.

Over the next five years, we’re looking forward to growing these partnerships, for the benefit of tribal communities and a healthy Colorado River that provides enough water for all.

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