The elephant that was left out of the room …

  • Jonathan Thompson

 

When you read Matt Jenkins' cover story in this issue, there's a good chance you'll be a bit surprised and even somewhat outraged. You'll learn that hundreds of homes on the Navajo Nation are without running water, despite the fact that, no matter how you slice it, the tribe has rights to a substantial piece of the Southwest's water pie. But the Navajos - not to mention every other tribe in the region - were completely left out of the Colorado River Compact negotiations that originally divvied up the river between seven Western states.

Read on a bit, however, and you may start to understand why the Compact's framers acted as they did. After all, Western water issues are convoluted enough when only the Anglo settlers are taken into account. Throw the Rio Grande acequias, or ditches, which have been in use for four centuries, into the mix, and things get even more tangled. Then there's former Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald's claim. He says that the Navajos - based on their traditional holy land - are entitled to some 50 million acre-feet of water, or every last drop of liquid in the Colorado River, and then some.

If the other tribes of the Southwest applied MacDonald's logic to their own traditional homelands, it would really stir the pot. The Utes could collectively claim all the water in Colorado and beyond, and various Apache tribes would have domain over water from Nebraska to Nevada to Mexico and Texas. Meanwhile, the Rio Grande Pueblos, the Zuni, the Hopi, and a handful of other pueblos could lay claim to all the same water that the Navajos are claiming and even more, based on the fact that their ancestors lived on, farmed and even irrigated a lot of that land. It wouldn't just stir the pot; it would set it to boiling. Before you know it, all the water would be gone.

And the water wars that would follow would embroil not just Nevada and the Navajo, but also the various tribes. So maybe you can understand why the tribes were left out of the original Colorado River Compact. It wasn't remotely fair, but it certainly made things a lot simpler. For a while, anyhow.

But the states in the compact can ignore the tribes no longer. Some tribes, such as those along the Gila River in Arizona, have settled their claims quite favorably. New Mexico has cut deals with a handful of pueblos on decades-old cases and also has a settlement lined up with the Navajo Nation, as you'll read about in Jenkins' story. The tribe won't get all the water it's entitled to, but it may gain a resource the people can bank on. More importantly, it could finally mean running water in more Navajo homes. It's about time. It's one thing that the Indians were left out of the Compact negotiations 86 years ago, but it's simply wrong that fountains in Vegas run around the clock today, while folks on the Navajo Nation have to buy their water from a vending machine in Gallup and then truck it for miles and miles to their homes.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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