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Tribes will get $1.7 billion for water rights settlements as part of federal infrastructure spending

An aging well on Navajo Nation provides non-potable water for some who live nearby. The new federal money is designed to fund the construction of reservoirs, pumping stations and clean drinking water systems that help tribes use more of the water they’re owed.
Alex Hager
/
KUNC
An aging well on Navajo Nation provides non-potable water for some who live nearby. The new federal money is designed to fund the construction of reservoirs, pumping stations and clean drinking water systems that help tribes use more of the water they’re owed.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is sending $1.7 billion to tribal communities as part of a plan to fulfill settlements of Indian water rights claims. The funding, allocated as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law, is being hailed as a step towards reconciliation after a long history of underinvestment in tribal water infrastructure.

Tribes, including many of those in the Colorado River basin, have some of the oldest water rights in the region, but often lack the infrastructure to use their full allotments. The new federal money is designed to fund the construction of reservoirs, pumping stations and clean drinking water systems that help tribes use more of the water they’re owed.

“Without allocation of resources and empowerment, there's really no pathway for tribes to seek water rights settlements,” said Daryl Vigil, water administrator for Jicarilla Apache Nation.

Vigil, an advocate for tribal water development across the region, said the funding is an important step in the government’s commitment to fulfill its obligations. Settlements provide new clarity at a critical time for water in the Western U.S.

Tribes have rights to a quarter of the Colorado River’s flow on paper, but do not actually use that much. The river supplies more than 40 million people across the Southwest, and its supplies are strained by more than two decades of drought and increased demand. As decision makers try to figure out the future of the shrinking river, settlements of tribal water rights will paint a clearer picture of where it’s currently being used.

"It provides a level of certainty so that we know how to build a water future together."
Daryl Vigil, water administrator for Jicarilla Apache Nation

“It provides a level of certainty so that we know how to build a water future together,” Vigil said. “Which isn't possible right now until we get rid of that uncertainty about what tribes have a right to.”

The bipartisan infrastructure law includes more than $13 billion for tribal communities, and the Interior Department’s recent announcement clarifies which chunk of that money will be used for water rights settlements, including a detailed list of recipients.

Advocates say this is a promising step for tribes in the Colorado River basin, but their historical exclusion from water negotiations in the West has left a need for more money and attention.

“It's a substantial dent in the federal obligation, but we have to remember that this allocated money that came out of the infrastructure law was only for settlements that have already been reached,” said Anne Castle, a senior fellow at the University of Colorado Law School. “And there are a number of tribes, particularly in the Southwest, that still have outstanding claims to Indian reserved water rights that have not yet been settled.”

Federal funding has been an important resource for tribes in the Southwest recently, especially in the development of clean drinking water supplies. The bipartisan infrastructure package earmarked billions of dollars for that cause, but some working in tribal water cautioned that more funding will be needed down the road.

“Almost 40% of people (in Navajo Nation) don't have running water,” said Crystal Tulley-Cordova, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. “It's not going to take one infrastructure bill to address that. And it's not going to be able to be done by the end of 2024. These are challenges that are wicked.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Alex Hager
Alex Hager graduated from Elon University in North Carolina with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He'll join Aspen Public Radio from KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.