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US Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Navajo Nation Water Case

The US Supreme Court appeared in doubt Monday after hearing oral arguments on whether to allow a water dispute between the federal government and the Navajo Nation to proceed in a lower court.

At issue is the use of the Colorado River, and states that draw water from the drought-stricken waterway are urging judges not to rule in favor of the tribe.

Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and some California water districts involved in the longstanding case said a vote for the Navajo Nation’s position would undermine agreements that already exist and unravel existing river basin management plans. .

Lawyers for the Navajo Nation said they are not asking for much.

“(The) relief we are seeking here is an assessment of the nation’s needs and a plan to meet them,” argued attorney Shay Dvoretzky, referring to water rights the tribe is guaranteed in treaties signed in 1849 and 1868.

The Navajos sued the federal government in 2003 for failing to take into account the tribe’s water rights in the Colorado River projects. A trial court dismissed the case, but a federal appeals court ruled it could go forward.

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The US government is trying to reverse that decision and block the lawsuit. If the Superior Court rules in favor of the Navajos, the case will revert to the US District Court in Arizona.

FILE - The Colorado River in the upper river basin is shown in Lees Ferry, Arizona, on May 29, 2021. The Supreme Court appears to be divided in a dispute between the federal government and the Navajo Nation over water for the affected area because of the drought  Colorado River.

The Navajos claim the federal government is not honoring their 1868 treaty that promised “sufficient land and water for the Navajo to return to a permanent home on their ancestral land.”

The case has implications not only for water use in the Colorado River Basin, but also for measuring the extent of the US government’s obligations to Native American tribes with respect to water.

Nearly a third of the 173,667 residents of the 27,000-square-mile reservation I don’t have running waterdepending on the tribe. Groundwater is the tribe’s main source for homes and businesses, and the struggle for access to surface water has lasted for decades.

The United States counters that adding the Navajo Nation to the list of entities that use Colorado River water could deplete the supply for the 40 million people already covered by a web of carefully crafted multi-state agreements. The Navajo Nation encompasses parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, but is not part of those agreements.

with cable news services

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