Published: June 20, 2024 By
Governor Stephen Lewis, Jason Hauter, Pilar Thomas, Leland Begay, Daryl Vigil
States Panel
Camille Calimlim Touton
Tribes Panel
Chris Winter and Governor Polis

The Getches-Wilkinson Center just wrapped up the 44th Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources, which has held at the law school on June 6-7, 2024. This year, the conference once again focused on management of the Colorado River watershed, and GWC was honored to co-convene this important conversation with the Water & Tribes Initiative for the second year in a row.

The conference was billed as “Next Chapters on the Colorado River: Short-Term Coping, Post-2026 Operations, and Beyond.” The seven basin states are in the midst of sensitive negotiations over the long-term guidelines for operation of the reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The final decision on those operating guidelines will be made by the Bureau of Reclamation and will address critical issues including the structural deficit in the system, i.e., the imbalance in water use and water supplies. As the states continue to negotiate, the stakes are high, and all eyes are watching to see whether a consensus agreement emerges. Meanwhile, the 30 Tribes across the Colorado River basin find themselves in a familiar position – outside of the formal negotiation process looking in.

At the Colorado River Conference, however, Tribal representatives had an opportunity to share their views on an equal footing with the other sovereigns. On Day 1, Daryl Vigil of the WTI moderated a panel of Tribal leaders representing the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Gila River Indian Reservation, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, and the Navajo Nation. They all conveyed that Tribes had been historically excluded from these important conversations about the future of the River, and that they were now demanding a seat at the table. Tribes across the Basin are working together to ensure fair treatment in allocation of Colorado River water, and they are also making strides on formal structures like the Memorandum of Understanding that was recently announced by the Upper Basin Tribes and the Upper Colorado River Commission.

The room was also abuzz with news of the recent settlement agreement involving the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, involving Northeastern Arizona water rights. The historic settlement agreement was approved by all three tribes shortly before the conference and will now require approval by Congress and $5 billion in funding. The settlement was celebrated as a product of self-determination and a sign of hope for future progress; however, the ultimate outcome is uncertain and subject to the political dynamics of Washington, DC. The Conference provided a unique opportunity for everyone working on Colorado River issues to learn about the settlement from the Tribes who drove the process and will be most impacted by the outcome.

From everyone here at GWC, we’d like to thank WTI, all the Tribal leaders who spoke, Governor Polis, Commissioner Touton, the state representatives, our sponsors, and all the other speakers and attendees for making this a memorable and impactful event. The show of community over those two days inspires us with hope that we can find solutions to these very challenging issues.

You can find a recording and images of the conference on our website here, and we’re already looking forward to 2025.