Back on March 22, 2016 – a.k.a. World Water Day – the White House held a White House Water Summit. The Obama administration directed federal agencies to begin focusing on national long-term drought resilience policies. This effort was primarily focused on how to solve ongoing water shortages that disproportionately affect Western states, specifically along the Colorado River Basin.
“We need to continue to develop collaborative strategies across each river basin to ensure that our nation’s water and power supplies, agricultural activities, ecosystems, and other resources all have sustainable paths forward,” said Michael L. Connor, the Interior Department’s Deputy Secretary.
But what are tribes doing about it?
Taking a look at a map, it’s clear that the Colorado River Basin includes more than just a few states. It also includes ten tribes who make up the Colorado River Basin Tribes Partnership. This group was founded in 1992 and involves the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Cocopah Indian Community, Hopi, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Nation Nation, Quechan Indian Tribe, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Indian Tribe, and Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.
Of course, tribes not included are extensive. Within Arizona alone, there are also the Ak-Chin Indian Community (Pima and Papago), Gila River (Pima and Maricopa), Havasupai Tribe, Hualapai Tribe, Kaibab-Paiute Tribe, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community, San Carlos Apache Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Tohono O’oodham Nation, Tonto Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Yavapai-Apache Nationa, and Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe. Then of course there are the other states including even more groups, such as the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico.
What have tribes been doing to take action on climate change?
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has many sustainability goals for the Navajo Region due to the Executive Order 13653, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe was awarded the EPA Clean Air Excellence Award this July for implementing an Air Quality Program (AQP) through its Environmental Programs Division. But the reality is that the southwest’s water crisis is taking its hardest toll on groups such as the Navajo Nation.
In August 2015, protestors in Window Rock attempted to chase Senator John McCain from tribal land for his on-going efforts to steal water rights from the Navajo and Hopi tribes. While the Navajo Nation already struggles to manage its own resources, Arizona is attempting to take surface water rights from the tribes and pull from their underground aquifers in an attempt to meet the high demands of cities like Phoenix and Tucson to the south. There are many problems to these proposals, not just because of their clear violations of tribal sovereignty and water rights but also because of what they would be supporting: the continued growth of two large cities that already overuse water that they don’t have.
Meanwhile, many individuals in the Navajo region have been conducting their own research on climate change. Dr. Margaret Hiza continues to observe sand dunes, noting that the invasive Russian Thistle (tumbleweed) with its tendency to break off without a root system contributes to the erosion and movement of dry sand. Dr. Karletta Chief and her assistants analyze data of precipitation and make recommendations through a technical review.
The findings all point to a need for more data, and of more people acting as observers for precipitation and changes on the Nation. Yet this enters the same area of concern brought up recently by the Dine Policy Institute’s Siihasin Summit: Reflecting on Research and Data Management in the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation has its own IRB, a research board that helps approve of projects and ensures any data collected is in full possession of the Navajo Nation. This helps prevent crises like Havasuapi-Arizona State University case that stole genetic data for purposes other than it was intended. And while this step of tribal sovereignty (data ownership) is necessary, it is also necessary for the tribes to step up and begin collecting and managing it at an efficient and effective manner that meets the demands of the problems the Nations are facing.
It will be interesting to see how the Navajo Nation continues to respond to topics of Climate Change, especially when it is so heavily reliant on extractive industries that clearly contribute to the emissions and water problems of the southwest.