The Supreme Court hears a case with implications for the shrinking Colorado River
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The Colorado River is shrinking, and who gets to use its water was at stake in a case before the Supreme Court today. Justices heard arguments in a case brought by the Navajo Nation, and the eventual ruling could blow up the delicate balance of how water from the river is shared. Here to explain more is NPR's Eric Whitney, our bureau chief for the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains. Hi, Eric.
ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: Hello, Ailsa.
CHANG: So why exactly is the Navajo Nation suing the federal government here?
WHITNEY: The Navajo Nation says that the federal government owes them water based on a pair of treaties that they signed back in the 19th century. Those treaties say that, in exchange for people on the nation giving up their nomadic way of life and settling down on a reservation, the federal government would make sure there's enough water for that and for them to develop agriculture.
CHANG: OK. And how much water are we talking about here?
WHITNEY: That's really the central question. And this specific case alone is unlikely to determine that. But depending on how the court rules, it could push the federal government toward defining exactly how much water the Navajo Nation needs. You know, we should note that it's still pretty common for people on the Navajo reservation to not have running water at home. And many people have to drive long distances just to get water for their daily needs.
What the court's doing now is reexamining promises made more than a century ago, back when the federal government created Indian reservations. It was with this understanding that with the land came adequate water. And there's a lot of case law reaffirming that. Some tribes have been given specific amounts of water based on that precedent. But exactly how much water is adequate for the Navajo reservation has never been explicitly defined. And in this case, the Navajo Nation says it's not asking for that. It's not asking for a specific amount of water. The tribe just says that the treaties obligate the federal government to come up with a water development plan. Now, coming up with a plan would likely mean defining exactly how much water the Navajo need.
WHITNEY: And it's very likely that water would have to come from the Colorado River. But the federal government disagrees that it's required to come up with a plan. And it's pretty clear that at this time, it has no desire to quantify exactly how much water the Navajo Nation has rights to.
CHANG: I mean, why doesn't the federal government want to define how much water the Navajo need? I mean, does it have to do with the huge demand of water that the Colorado River already sees?
WHITNEY: You know, that's sort of the huge elephant in the room here. The federal government has acknowledged how hard it would be to open up negotiations on this water sharing agreement on the Colorado, especially now in the middle of this strangling drought we're in the middle of and with climate change making things very unpredictable. You know, the Colorado is a lifeline for 40 to 50 million people in seven states. There's already more demand for water from the Colorado than is actually in the river. And when there's a shortage, those with the oldest water rights are last in line for cuts. So, like, right now Arizona is seeing some cutbacks because California has older rights.
So if it's determined that the Navajo have rights to water in the river, their claims would be among the oldest and the most powerful. So a lot of people are really afraid of Navajo rights being explicitly defined because any water that the Navajo get would have to be taken away from somebody else. But, again, you know, the federal government isn't saying that it's shying away from defining Navajo water rights because it would be hard. It's just saying it's not obligated to do so. It says that the treaties only obligate them to reserve enough water for the tribe, not to name a specific amount or to, you know, pay for pipelines or canals to actually deliver water to people or farms there. They say the tribe is on its own to come up with its own plan. And, you know, it's free to start drilling for groundwater. They say nothing in the treaties obligates the federal government to deliver water to them from the Colorado River.
CHANG: And real quick, Eric, do you have any indication at this point of what the court is likely to do?
WHITNEY: I mean, first, they're going to have to figure out exactly what the treaties obligate the federal government to do. Right now the court has a lot of power over the Colorado River because the current water sharing agreement rests on a lawsuit that the Supreme Court ruled on previously. So it could reopen that. But attorneys with the federal government argue that Congress should be the ultimate arbiter here.
CHANG: That is NPR's Eric Whitney. Thank you, Eric.
WHITNEY: Thank you, Ailsa.
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