ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico
A Native American tribe has agreed to lease more of its water to help deal with dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin, officials said Thursday.
The agreement involves the Jicarilla Apache Nation, the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission and The Nature Conservancy.
The tribe has agreed to lease up to 6.5 billion gallons (25 billion liters) of water annually from the state to enhance endangered species flows and increase water security for New- Mexico.
Water would be released from the Navajo Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico to feed the San Juan River, which empties into the Colorado River.
New Mexico is one of seven western states that depend on the Colorado River. Elsewhere, water managers have already had to draw up contingency plans as less snow, warmer temperatures and water lost through evaporation have affected the river’s ability to meet demand.
Jicarilla Apache Nation Water Administrator Daryl Vigil stressed the need for creative solutions as pressure mounts in the drought-stricken basin. He highlighted the benefits of meaningful cooperation with Native American communities, saying this new project could serve as a model for other tribes and open the door to broader conversations as officials try to establish guidelines for future Colorado River operations.
The goal is to create flexibility between sovereign jurisdictions to get water to where it needs to be, Vigil said.
“It’s about building a future together,” he said. “It sets the stage for that.”
Not all tribes in the basin have the legal authority to lease water. Some tribes in Arizona have already played a significant role in shoring up water supplies as that state deals with mandatory cuts to its Colorado River allocation.
Jicarilla Apache Nation water rights support the tribe’s cultural practices and economy while ensuring residents have water to drink.
The tribe sub-leases most of its water to other users. For several decades, this included coal-fired power plants in the region through long-term contracts that provided a stable source of income. With the mills under threat of closure, officials said it presented an opportunity for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico and the environmental group to strike a new deal that would ensure the water would be used and the tribe would be compensated.
“The Colorado River Basin Tribal Nations are among the most important leaders and partners in efforts to find lasting solutions to the pressing water scarcity and ecological challenges faced by the millions of people who depend on this incredible river,” said Celene Hawkins, a tribal engagement. program director for The Nature Conservancy.
Vigil said the San Juan River was among the hardest hit tributaries last year. Although the snow conditions this winter have been promising, he said officials still need to prepare.
“We have been living adaptively for thousands of years. Let us show you how it’s done,” he said.