Navajo Nation advocates surprised by Supreme Court ruling on water access

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the Navajo Nation's claims that the government has failed to help the tribe increase water access.
Published: Jun. 22, 2023 at 9:38 PM MST|Updated: Jun. 22, 2023 at 10:26 PM MST
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NAVAJO NATION (3TV/CBS 5)The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Thursday against the Navajo Nation’s claims that the U.S. government has failed to actively help the tribe increase its water access. The court’s decision comes as Southwestern states try to devise a solution for the dwindling Colorado River. Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren was surprised about the decision. He thought that a treaty from 1868 with the U.S. government guaranteed access to water. “In order for us to prosper as a nation, first and foremost, you need water,” Nygren said.

But writing for the majority, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh said that the treaty with the Navajo Nation did not require the U.S. government to actively help. “To be told that you’ve got to figure it out on your own kind of a deal wasn’t fair in my opinion,” Nygren said.

Despite bordering the Colorado River, the Navajo Nation has dealt with water supply issues for decades. Part of that has been because of climate change and part has been due to a lack of infrastructure.

McGuireWoods Consulting and Native American Policy Group head Mike Andrews says the court’s decision sends a message to the Navajo Nation and all Indian tribes about where they stand. “What the Supreme Court essentially said is the Department of the Interior doesn’t have to proactively protect tribes,” Andrews said. “They don’t have to be that stopgap, which quite honestly is counterintuitive to federal Indian policy.”

The deal agrees to cut at least 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026 – around 10% of the states’ Colorado River allocation.

Nygren says historically, the Navajo Nation has stayed out of legal efforts to obtain Colorado River water rights. Moving forward, he expects that to change. “This is the time and place to reach out to our colleagues so that we could provide water to our people that are really needing water,” he said.

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