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Tribes push for a bigger role in managing the shrinking Colorado River's water

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Native American tribes hold the legal rights to a quarter of the water in the Colorado River. Yet for a century, they have been excluded from negotiations on how to share the river's water. States say this is set to change, and tribes are pushing to make sure it does. Colorado Public Radio's Michael Elizabeth Sakas reports.

MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: Just because tribes hold rights to Colorado River water doesn't mean homes on reservations can access it. Lorenzo Pena pulls into a drive-through water distribution center on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Reservation in southwest Colorado. He connects the empty tank his truck is hauling to a large hose. Thousands of gallons of water quickly rush in.

LORENZO PENA: Most people do not have wells around here, and so this is why we deliver to them. And a lot of people have hauled water, you know, all their life. You know, every truck around here, you see a water tank in the back.

SAKAS: Pena works for a tribal program to deliver water to members not connected to the local utility.

PENA: It's pretty dry around here. I mean, if people have wells, they're real slow wells or the wells aren't really producing much water, you know?

SAKAS: But today, 15% of Southern Utes living on the reservation don't have running water in their homes at all. That rate is higher for other tribes, including 40% of the Navajo Nation.

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LORELEI CLOUD: So when I was growing up, I grew up in a house with no running water.

SAKAS: That's Lorelei Cloud, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council speaking at the University of Colorado Boulder. She's with the Water and Tribes Initiative, which is working to secure tribes a voice in the upcoming policymaking process on how to best manage the Colorado River.

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CLOUD: We've been stewards of this water for such a long time, and we need to make sure that we're always in the conversations of how much water that we are using to make sure that we all can have sustainable water.

SAKAS: Around 40 million people across the West rely on the Colorado River. The congressionally approved agreement on how to manage its water was signed a hundred years ago when Native Americans weren't considered U.S. citizens. Seven states and Mexico are part of that deal today, but the 30 sovereign tribes in the river basin are excluded. Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, says that means tribes haven't known exactly how much water is theirs. Through court battles and legal fights, the tribes now hold rights to a quarter of the river.

MANUEL HEART: Which is a huge amount - and some of it is going downriver, not accounted for. And we need to be able to account for it if we're going to claim our water rights on the river.

SAKAS: Heart says being excluded from Colorado River compacts and negotiations has prevented tribes from building the infrastructure to use the water that might rightfully be theirs.

HEART: Everybody's growing population-wise, and their needs are growing. You've got to include tribes in it, too, 'cause they too are part of the equation.

SAKAS: In the West, water is crucial for communities and local economies to grow, and the resource is becoming more valuable as the Colorado River dries up from overuse and a two-decade megadrought fueled by climate change. Becky Mitchell of the Colorado Water Conservation Board says her state has started working with the tribes, and others should do the same.

BECKY MITCHELL: When we talk about trust in government, we have to be open to different ways to do things than we have before, and we have to figure out, how do we create a more certain future for everyone in the basin?

SAKAS: Mitchell says some of the hesitation to include tribes in the river negotiations is the uncertainty it could create. If the tribes start using all of the Colorado River water they have the rights to, it could mean less water for some states in the West. For NPR News, I'm Michael Elizabeth Sakas in Denver.

KELLY: And that story was part of a reporting project with the Institute for Nonprofit News covering power and water justice in the West.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.