Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West But to use them, tribes often must negotiate settlements that need federal approval.

Tribal nations hold some of the best water rights in the West But to use them, tribes often must negotiate settlements that need federal approval.

News Type: State, Regional, Federal Source: High Country News
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Tens of thousands of people on the Navajo Nation lack running water in their homes. But that could change in the coming years, as the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project goes into effect. It’s expected to deliver water to the reservation and nearby areas by 2024, as part of a Navajo Nation water rights settlement with New Mexico, confirmed by Congress in 2009.

Three other Native water settlements currently await congressional approval. They arise from federal legal decisions recognizing that many tribes in the West hold water rights that largely pre-date — and therefore override — the water rights of non-Native settlers.

Many tribal nations are currently asserting those rights as a way to ensure economic vitality, affirm sovereignty and provide basic services that some communities lack. In many places, however, Native water rights have yet to be quantified, making them difficult to enforce. Settlement is usually the preferred remedy; it’s cheaper, faster and less adversarial than a lawsuit, and can include funding for things like pipelines or treatment plants. With settlements, “the tribes are able to craft solutions that work for them and that can be more flexible than anything that could be achieved through litigation,” says Kate Hoover, a principal attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice water rights unit.