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SCOTUS Restricts Water Rights for Navajo Nation

Photo credit: Leah Hogsten \ The Salt Lake Tribune

By Hunter Marion

On June 22nd, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Arizona v. Navajo Nation (2023) that the United States was not responsible for securing access to clean, fresh water for the Diné people. This is yet another blatant attack on citizens’ rights to clean water, such as what happened in Sackett v. EPA (2023), and another harmful decision in a string of highly controversial rulings this last month.

The argument at the heart of the case was whether an 1868 treaty signed between the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government included providing the Diné with direct, reliable access to the Colorado River watershed. The treaty specified that the Nation would be given sufficient resources that allowed for suitable agriculture in their “new, permanent home.” The Diné rightly assumed that this would include infrastructure that accessed the river’s water.

The Navajo Nation has rights to ~700,000 acre-feet of water annually from the Colorado River. However, it does not have the infrastructure necessary to access their owed amount of water. This leaves about 40% of all Diné households without water. To put this into perspective, 99.2% of the entire U.S. population has continuous access to potable drinking water, whereas only 48% of the U.S. Indigenous populace has such access. For the 82 gallons of water accessed by the average non-Indigenous U.S. citizen per day, an average Indigenous citizen accesses only 7 gallons. Global warming has also decimated water levels in the Southwest region, particularly exacerbating tribal nations’ already limited water access.

By voiding any responsibility of the U.S. government to build water infrastructure in the Nation in this ruling, the U.S. has once again broken another contract between the Nation. The ruling also perpetuates the centuries-long discrimination that disproportionately exposes Indigenous peoples to environmental contaminants, radiation, extractive and polluting enterprises on tribal lands, and denies them continuous access to health,  education, and clean water.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, although disappointed, “remain[ed] undeterred” and vouched that he will continue fighting to “represent and protect the Navajo people, [their] land, and [their] future.” The Native American Rights Fund also voiced that they “will continue to assert their water rights” despite the Court’s ruling.

Backyard Talk

Environmental Injustice in the Navajo Nation

By Dylan Lenzen

Experiencing the environmental injustice associated with the fossil fuel industry is not exclusive to minority and low-income neighborhoods within America’s largest cities. The same toxic living conditions can also be found on America’s remote and impoverished Native American reservations. Here, the health of individuals and communities that inhabit these regions subsidize the development of cheap electricity and water in surrounding cities that disconnected from their suffering.

An example of this remote environmental injustice can be found on the Navajo reservation in the Southwestern U.S. This sprawling reservation is home to the country’s largest Native American tribe, the Navajo Nation, with over 300,000 members.

The story of this region is defined by environmental injustice that stems from the vast coal resources found there and the large corporations working to exploit it. This wealth of coal resources has fostered a dependence on fossil fuel development with roots that go back nearly a century.

The region is currently exploited by two mines, both operated by Peabody Coal Company, the largest private-sector coal company. These mines create over 1,000 of jobs for local residents, but also contribute to high rates of cancer and lung disease in workers and surrounding communities. The coal extracted by these mines is then sent to the Navajo Generating Station, where the coal produces electricity for the surrounding region, much of it being utilized for transporting valuable water resources to Phoenix, Tucson, and other Southwest cities.

While it would be intuitive to think that this incredible amount of coal production and generation of valuable electricity would lead to a strong economy on the Navajo Reservation, but that is clearly not the case. While the mining and power plants provide a number of jobs, the community remains impoverished with a 45 percent unemployment rate and 77,000 people living below the poverty line. Many of the people living in the community cannot even afford access to the important services, such as electricity and running water, that their coal and power plants provide for the major cities that surround the reservation.

This widespread impoverishment is a result of the fact that, despite the health and environmental sacrifices associated with coal mining and coal-fired power plants, the Navajo Nation receives but a small fraction of the profits that Peabody and the Navajo Generating Station produce. The land that is leased to Peabody for mining, and transporting the coal is leased to them for a fraction of its true value. The Navajo Generating Station that burns the coal produced by Peabody is not even owned by the Navajo Nation.

While this is just one of many examples of the environmental, economic, and public health outcomes of fossil fuel generation in America, the results on Native American reservations like the Navajo Nation are particularly acute. Because of the remote nature of these reservations, it is especially easy to overlook the role they play in subsidizing the development of excess for the rest of society.

Examples like the Navajo Nation offer a great source of motivation for a transition of our energy system towards one that does not pollute and destroy the environment and health of minority and low-income communities. Whether these communities reside in some of America’s largest cities, or it’s most remote locales, they deserve better.