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Tribes are pushing to play a larger role in water-sharing agreements

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

States that share the Colorado River are struggling to agree on how to make big new cuts and how much water they each take. And some of the tribal governments within those states are protesting that they don't have a seat at the table. Megan Myscofski, with member station Arizona Public Media, reports on one tribe in Arizona that fought in court to have some of their water restored.

MEGAN MYSCOFSKI, BYLINE: Crickets chirp on a quiet morning on the San Xavier Indian Reservation just outside Tucson, in the dry Sonoran Desert. Julie Ramon-Pierson, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation, grew up here near the Santa Cruz River in the 1950s.

JULIE RAMON-PIERSON: We had a lot of vegetation, and we had cottonwood trees. And I remember - like, I think I must have been about maybe 10 years old - when there was still cottonwoods in the river.

MYSCOFSKI: Her grandfather owned a farm on land that had been farmed for millennia by the Tohono O’odham and their ancestors, the Huhugam. But centuries of overuse of the sparse water supply by white settlers caught up with the region. It essentially dried up the stretch of the Santa Cruz River that runs through here. It's a tributary of the Colorado River. Pierson watched her grandfather's water supply dry up to the point where drilling deeper for water became too expensive, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs stopped helping him cover the cost. She and other tribal members with a stake in the land watched their land become nearly unusable.

RAMON-PIERSON: Farming is important. It has always existed here.

MYSCOFSKI: So in the 1970s, tribal members who'd inherited the land came together to combine their own farms and co-manage them. They wanted to make it farmable again, so they sued to get some of their water back. And it took seven years, but the tribe got the state of Arizona to restore enough water to help recharge the Santa Cruz aquifer.

RAMON-PIERSON: What changed when we got it? We had water.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

KAELYN SPIVEY: We're sorting out the seeds here - watermelon seeds, yellow watermelon - just scooping it all up 'cause the good seeds sink to the bottom.

MYSCOFSKI: Kaelyn Spivey is a nursery assistant at the co-op farm. He's sifting through a big plastic bin filled with the insides of yellow watermelons. The tribe sells them locally, along with other traditional crops from the co-op, which is now central to the reservation. They also grow alfalfa as a cash crop and are careful to use as little water as possible.

RAYMOND ANTONE: Especially with the traditional crops. We like to say we stress them out a lot.

MYSCOFSKI: Raymond Antone also works for the co-op. He says they've tested several water systems on both the cash and traditional crops.

ANTONE: We try to give them the least amount of water as we can because that's the strongest crop we're going to have here.

MYSCOFSKI: Now, dozens of other tribes in the Colorado River Basin are fighting to legally lock in water supplies they lost, too. When the states that share the Colorado divvied it up a hundred years ago, they explicitly left out tribes, despite the tribes having legal rights to portions of it. That old law is being renegotiated now.

DARYL VIGIL: We're still operating on those values of a hundred years ago that make no sense today, that we can't build upon.

MYSCOFSKI: Daryl Vigil works for the Water & Tribes Initiative, a group that works to make sure Indigenous people are represented as decisions are made about the Colorado River, which now carries far less water due to climate change. And Vigil says there are still tribes dealing with the same issues. Some still don't even have access to running water in their homes, and water is only getting more scarce.

VIGIL: Part of it has to deal with, you know, creating structures that have never existed. Because the existing one isn't inclusive of us and it's excluded us every single step of the way.

MYSCOFSKI: His group has sent letters to the federal government, co-signed by tribal leaders, to demand more involvement. Right now, tribal leaders are taking part in formal and informal talks and have found optimism in that. But they still don't play a formal role in negotiations. Some find it hard to believe their needs will be met. So far, they've seen talks over the river's shrinking supply amount to little progress.

VIGIL: Some of the response from Indian Country, you know, to recent leadership, particularly from the federal government side, is a whole world of disappointment.

MYSCOFSKI: And he says Western tribes know from experience that if they want to see solutions from the federal government, they'll need to make a lot of noise to get it.

For NPR News, I'm Megan Myscofski in Tucson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Myscofski