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Navajo Nation fights for water access in front of Supreme Court

Navajo Nation was left out of Colorado River allocations as western states fight over its resources. Now they're fighting for reassignments.
Posted at 8:56 PM, Mar 20, 2023

At the Supreme Court Monday, one of the nation's largest Native tribes fought for access to water.

The critical case from Navajo nation is trying to force the U.S. government to allow it access to the main Colorado River, a crucial supply in a water-weary West. 

"We've always been farmers; we've always farmed," said Terri James, agricultural science teacher at a Navajo Nation high school.

James has now seen how shrinking water supplies have left the largest Native reservation by land size high and dry.

"The technique is a little different, and the last couple of years we've put in a drip system at elder homes," James said.

There have been necessary changes to generations of farming practices as the Colorado River drains and western states surrounding the Navajo fight for what's left.

"They're basically supplying double the population with about the same amount of water that they were 20-plus years ago," said state Sen. Cleave Simpson, (R) Colorado.

Federal government forced to intervene in Colorado River water dispute

Federal government forced to intervene in Colorado River water dispute

California and the six other Colorado River Basin states couldn't agree on cuts in water usage before the Jan. 31 deadline.


As western states battle over allocation of the Colorado River's water, the Navajo have been left out, assigned instead to the river's tributaries on their land — water they were given access to under decades-old land-secession treaties.

At the Supreme Court Monday, the U.S. government argued it doesn't have the authority to reapportion allotments of the Colorado River without the Supreme Court changing its stance through a previous ruling — an argument unwelcome to the liberal justices.

"If the treaty promises water, where do you get the idea that that is unenforceable?" Associate Justice Elena Kagan said.

But even one conservative argued that land secession treaties from the 1800s make it pretty clear: The U.S. government must provide appropriate water resources to the nation since those treaties promised a permanent home to farm and raise animals.

The outcome of the case could come down to Amy Coney-Barrett, who skeptically questioned both arguments. Now her opinion could decide whether the people first to the land, now in crisis, will get the water they need to stay.

But if the tribe prevails, the government argues it could have ripple effects for dozens of other legal arguments with other tribes, possibly prompting devastating impacts for rest of the country's access to water.