‘We are tied to our water’: Colorado River Indian Tribes sign historic water rights settlement

Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signed the final documents for the tribe’s water rights settlement on April 26, 2024. The settlement is part of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Resiliency Act of 2022. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

With the waving water of the Colorado River in the background, tribal, federal, and state leaders gathered on the Colorado River Indian Tribe’s reservation to celebrate the historic signing of the tribe’s water rights settlement. 

“We have waited patiently for today,” Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said. 

It is a historical event for the tribe, she said, because the agreement clears the way for the tribe to finally be recognized as a central party in all future decisions regarding their rights to the Colorado River. 

Dozens of people gathered on the bank of the Colorado River at Blue Water Marina Park on the tribe’s land on April 26 to celebrate the signing of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Water Resiliency Act of 2022.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly introduced the legislation in December 2021. It took a year for it to pass through the legislation process before President Joe Biden signed it into law on Jan. 3, 2023

“As tribal nations, history has shown us that we must be vigilant in protecting our resources and our rights,” Flores said, adding that the agreement is a long overdue wake-up call to create a sustainable future for the river.

“The pathway of using power to take resources from tribal nations and to ignore the boundaries of our land and the attributes of our water rights to give to others should be completely out of the question,” she added.

The agreement was finalized when Flores, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs signed the documents on April 26.

“This agreement reflects years of cooperation between the federal government, the State of Arizona and the tribes,” Haaland said. “It comes at a critical time in Arizona as the state continues to deal with extended drought and the impacts of the climate crisis at the department.”

Kelly called it the first of its kind and said it started with the simple idea of tribes being able to move their water. 

“This is an important recognition of the tribe’s sovereignty and the role that they play as a critical steward of this resource,” he said.  “It also allows them to invest in making their own infrastructure and agriculture more water efficient so that they are more resilient in years to come.”

It’s been a long journey for the tribe, but Flores said the agreements they signed confirm and support what they have always done: make decisions based on what is best for the river’s life and what is best for our people. 

“We celebrate the empowerment of our rights to make our own decisions with who, when, and how our water resources may be used,” she said. 

Hobbs said that CRIT has been a vital partner to Arizona in water conservation efforts along the Colorado River, and “it is fitting that this invaluable water supply will continue to support the lives of those who have relied upon the river for so many generations.”

Through the legislation, the tribe is now authorized to enter into agreements related to water conservation, lease, exchange or storage of portions of their allocated water from the Colorado River. 

“The implementation of these agreements and the new fundability for the Colorado River Indian Tribes to use their water resources in new and creative ways presents an enormous opportunity for additional conservation and water management solutions as we confront climate change and the stress it is placing on our water supplies,” Hobbs said.

Before the tribe can enter into its first agreement, it must enter into a deal with the State of Arizona that outlines all of the requirements of any potential lease or exchange agreement CRIT may enter into.

As part of the act, CRIT is authorized to make agreements only with entities located within the Lower Basin of the Colorado River in Arizona and not in Navajo, Apache or Cochise counties.

The Department of Interior still has the right to approve or disapprove of an agreement, and it can also enter into agreements with the tribe as long as they pay fair market value. The Interior must ensure that water agreements under this act do not permanently alienate any portion of the CRIT water allocation.

The CRIT community is located about 40 miles south of Lake Havasu City and includes over 4,500 active tribal members from four distinct tribes: the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo. 

In 1865, tribal land for the CRIT was created by the federal government, which includes almost 300,000 acres, with the Colorado River serving as the focal point.

According to the tribe’s website, its land stretches along the Colorado River on the Arizona and California sides. The tribe’s water rights were granted in 1964 as part of a U.S. Supreme Court decree.

The CRIT has water rights to the Lower Colorado River for 719,248 acre-feet per year, primarily used for irrigation to serve its tribal lands in Arizona and California. 

The CRIT is the largest user of Colorado River water in Arizona, with an annual allocation of 662,402 acre-feet of water from the river’s mainstream water supply. Mainstream water is water that comes directly from the river and is not sent into the Central Arizona Project (CAP) system to be transported across the state.

“These agreements and the incredible support we have received demonstrate that there is a new way to protect what our creator gave us not just for CRIT, but for all who depend and rely upon the Colorado,” Flores said. 

The tribe will maintain its water rights allocated by the 1964 Supreme Court decree. The CRIT Resiliency Act of 2022 ensures that no agreement reduces or limits the tribe’s right to use the remaining portion of its allocation.

“This legislation is an example of the steps that we can take to create flexible solutions,” Kelly said. “It also shows just how important tribal nations are to this effort.”

Flores said the tribe has been working toward controlling its water rights for over 40 years, and she stands on the shoulders of the leaders who lead the fight before her. 

“We stand tall and united with strong voices (and) strong hearts to acknowledge the river, for it is the very essence of our being as members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes,” Flores said.

She said the river has sustained CRIT in everything they do and continues to do.

“We are tied to our water,” she said. “Water is life, and it is our life.”

For some CRIT tribal members, the water settlement signing was bittersweet because they understood why the settlement needed to happen, but it does worry some that they’ll be sharing bits of their water. 

“It’s sad, but it’s happy, because we value our water,” said Victoria Enas, a Mojave woman and a member of CRIT. 

Enas said she understands that the tribe needs to cooperate because of the changing climate and the need to share resources, but she hopes they will be picky about who they choose to share the tribe’s water with. 

“It’s part of our culture,” she said. “We don’t want to be sitting here with a dry river saying that there used to be a river here, there used to be this, but we want to preserve it for future generations.”

Enas, 55, attended the signing with her daughter Gabriella Esquerra, 17. Both talked about how the river is a big part of their culture and the importance of preserving it for future generations.

Enas said the river should be treated like a living body because it has life like any other human being. 

“We want to keep it going,” she said. “We love our river,” 

Esquerra echoed her mom’s comments, adding that she feels sad about the water settlement signing because she grew up near the river, swimming and playing in it often. She does not want to see it given away. 

Esquerra said she thinks the water settlement agreement is like the tribe slowly cutting pieces out of the river’s body and giving them away.

“I want to keep those pieces of body to ourselves and not give it away to the people who want the body of water,” she added. “I want to protect it as much as I can.”

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