Upper Basin tribes in Colorado strengthen their voice in water discussions through a historic agreement

This Colorado Sun article offers a perspective of the overdue role of Indigenous people's needs in ongoing water woes.

Upper Basin tribes in Colorado strengthen their voice in water discussions through a historic agreement
Aerial view of the Piedra River as it winds its way through the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in 2012. Seven rivers in total cross through the boundaries of the Southern Ute Reservation in Southwest Colorado. (Jeremy Wade Shockley, The Southern Ute Drum)

by: Shannon Mullane

Tribal nations in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming are one step closer to having a seat at the table in Colorado River discussions thanks to a historic interstate agreement.

Native American tribes have over the past century been left out of key agreements that manage the river. The Upper Colorado River Commission, an agency at the nexus of many Colorado River discussions in the Upper Basin, voted Monday to back a new proposed agreement that would, for the first time in the group’s 76-year-history, make regular meetings with tribes mandatory. 

“This is a big deal. It is the start, not the finish line. It is the beginning of doing better,” Colorado commissioner Becky Mitchell said during Monday’s Upper Colorado River Commission meeting.

Six Upper Basin tribes must also approve the agreement for it to be finalized. Representatives of five tribes spoke in support of the agreement during the meeting. Members from one tribe were unable to attend.

This Fresh Water News story is a collaboration between The Colorado Sun and Water Education Colorado. It also appears at wateredco.org/fresh-water-news.

The Upper Colorado River Commission, created in 1948, has permanent seats for a federal representative and commissioners for the four Upper Basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Upper Basin tribes have long asked for a seat at that table and in other forums where Colorado River decisions are made.

“The tribes have always been a little frustrated that they just don’t automatically have a seat on the UCRC,” said Peter Ortego, general counsel of the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe. “When the UCRC was created … I think, for the most part, people didn’t recognize the importance of having the tribes involved.”

Congress and states formed the river commission to make sure the Colorado River’s water is properly allocated according to agreements like the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which governs how the water is split between the upper and lower basin states.

The 30 tribal nations in the Colorado River Basin, which are sovereign entities that have rights to about 26% of the river’s average flow, were excluded from those compact negotiations.

The river commission operates in the Upper Basin. It has no authority in the Lower Basin — Arizona, California, Nevada and more than 20 tribal nations — which does not have a similar, centralized commission.

In recent years, Upper Colorado River commissioners’ discussions have focused on key issues, like how to spend federal dollars, navigate interstate negotiations about the river’s management, and respond to a prolonged drought that is threatening the future water security of 40 million people across the West.

As recently as 2007 and 2019, state and federal partners developed new rules for managing the river in response to that prolonged drought, but again, tribes were not included.

Since mid-2023, Upper Basin tribal nations and the river commission have been working together to develop an agreement to formalize dialogue with the tribes.

Under the agreement, tribal representatives would not be voting members or have permanent seats on the commission, which would require Congressional approval, Ortego said.

Instead, the commission would meet with tribes every two months to talk about interstate Colorado River issues. Meetings would be open to Upper Basin tribes, consisting of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah and Navajo Nation, according to the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The proposal is modeled on collaboration that is already taking place, New Mexico commissioner Estevan Lopez said.

“The importance of it is that it institutionalizes what we’ve begun. Right now we’ve got folks in these seats that all feel this is important, but we think institutionalizing it will assure that it continues.

With meetings permanently on the schedule, tribal representatives would have opportunities to work out conflicts, coordinate their efforts and operate in a more unified way, Ortego said. 

Working together more closely has helped build trust and relationships, said Vanessa Torres, a member of the Southern Ute Tribal Council, during Monday’s meeting. 

“Southern Ute, along with many other tribes, have been asking for greater inclusion in the Colorado River discussions and decision makings,” Torres said. “The UCRC responded to the request.”