ALBUQUERQUE – A Native American tribe has agreed to lease more of its water to help address dwindling supplies in the Colorado River Basin, officials announced 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 of water per year to the state to bolster flows for endangered species and increase water security for New Mexico.
The water would be released from the Navajo Reservoir in northwestern New Mexico to feed the San Juan River, which flows into the Colorado River.
New Mexico is among the seven Western states that rely on the Colorado River. Water managers elsewhere already have had to come up with contingency plans as less snow, warmer temperatures and water lost to evaporation have affected the river’s ability to meet demands.
Daryl Vigil, the Jicarilla Apache Nation’s water administrator, highlighted the need for creative solutions as pressure grows across the drought-stricken basin. He pointed to the benefits of meaningful cooperation with Native American communities, saying this novel project could serve as a model for other tribes and opens the door to broader conversations as officials try to chart out guidelines for future operations of the Colorado River.
The goal is to create flexibility across sovereign jurisdictions to get water to where it needs to be, Vigil said.
“It’s about building a future together,” he said. “This sets the stage for that.”
Not all tribes in the basin have legal authority to lease water. Some tribes in Arizona already have played a significant role in shoring up water supplies as that state deals with mandatory cuts to its Colorado River allocation.
The Jicarilla Apache Nation’s water rights support the tribe's cultural practices and economy while ensuring residents have water to drink.
The tribe subleases most of its water to other users. For several decades, that has included coal-fired power plants in the region through long-term contracts that provided a steady source of revenue.
With the plants facing closure, officials said that presented an opportunity for the Jicarilla Apache Nation, New Mexico and the environmental group to strike a new deal that ensured the water would be put to use and that the tribe would be compensated.
“The Colorado River Basin’s tribal nations are among the most important leaders and partners in efforts to find lasting solutions to the pressing water scarcity and ecological challenges that face the millions of people who rely 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. While snowpack this winter has been promising, he said officials still need to prepare.
“We’ve been living adaptively for thousands of years. Let us show you how it’s done,” he said.