The Colorado River Can’t Be Divvied Up Without Indigenous People at the Table


Percy Deal lives in Black Mesa, a bowl-shaped region in northeastern Arizona that’s part of the Navajo and Hopi reservations. The mesa is situated along the Colorado River and two of its tributaries, the Little Colorado and San Juan. Yet Deal, like some 40% of Navajo people, doesn’t have running water in his house.

“So what we do is we go to a watering facility, which is located, for me, 20 minutes away, one way, 40 miles [64 kilometers] round trip,” he said.

Deal, a 72-year-old community activist whose family has lived on this land for 500 years, usually loads up two 55-gallon drums with water at the pumping station, then drives them home and siphons them out into two more empty drums that he keeps on his porch. He does this every few weeks.

His experience and the fate of the Colorado River are intimately connected. Last month, the government declared the first-ever water shortage for the Colorado River watershed, the largest water source in the West, triggering mandatory cuts for water usage. The new rules will affect millions, with the harshest restrictions imposed on Arizona farmers. But Indigenous communities, which already have issues obtaining water, are concerned that if officials don’t give them a seat in water negotiations, not being written into the rules will come with dire consequences for the entire watershed.

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