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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

The Colorado River and Environmental Justice for the Navajo Tribe

The Colorado River leading up to a dam. Photo Credits: Silvia Fang/Unsplash.

The Colorado River leading up to a dam. Photo Credits: Silvia Fang/Unsplash.

Clare Carlson, ’23

Photo Credit: Silvia Fang/Unsplash

Clare Carlson ’23 graduated with an economics major and minor in environmental studies and was a 2022-23 Environmental Ethics Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.


The Colorado River provides water for 40 million people in seven states: Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, California, Arizona, and Nevada. The river starts as a small stream in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and flows south and west for 1,450 miles until it ends in Mexico’s Gulf of California [1]. The Colorado River has reached an all-time low level of water due to a combination of chronic overuse of water resources and a historic drought exacerbated by climate change [1]. Because of the multi-state nature of this issue, water rights based on seniority have been agreed on between the seven states to determine how much water is allocated to each state. However, there is much debate between the states today over the validity of the rights that were determined in the mid-1900s when faced with the current climate crisis-induced droughts. Furthermore, the water rights of Indigenous groups around the Colorado River have been largely ignored historically and currently in negotiations for water allocations. This paper will explore how the drying up of the Colorado River is impacting states that rely on its water resources with a specific focus on the environmental justice issues for the Navajo tribe in Arizona. 

The Colorado River is a crucial source of water for Western states and is being heavily impacted by climate change creating a tense situation between the states that rely on the river to sustain themselves. Hotter and drier conditions in the United States have drained the two major reservoirs on the river to incredibly low levels that have not been seen since these reservoirs were first filled [1]. These two man-made reservoirs are Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border and Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border [1]. The Lower Basin states (California, Arizona, and Nevada) rely on water from these reservoirs, while the Upper Basin states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico) have fewer reservoirs and divert water directly from the river in thousands of places [1]. If the water level in the two main reservoirs falls too low they could reach “dead pool”; a scenario where there is not enough water in the reservoirs to pass through the dams [2]. The Lower Basin states would lose their main source of drinking water, their main source of irrigation, and the hydropower that is created by the dams [2]. Because climate change has impacted the river so greatly, states that rely on its water are rushing to secure their rights to the water supply and ensure adequate water for their residents. 

A major factor in determining water allocation from the river for each state is the notion of water rights. Water rights refer to who has permission to take water out of the Colorado River. The rights are based on seniority and are governed through a complicated network of laws, court decisions, contracts, and regulations known as the Law of the River [1]. Therefore, because California claimed water rights first, they have more water allocated to them. In 1922, the seven states signed the Colorado River Compact to determine how the water would be distributed [1]. In 1994, Mexico was guaranteed a portion of the river by this treaty, so a total of 17.5 million acre-feet of water were shared between the states and Mexico [1]. In the 1963 Supreme court case, Arizona v. California, it was decided that of the first 7.5 million acre-feet that head to the Lower Basin states, 4.4 million goes to CA, 2.8 million goes to AZ, and 300,000 acre-feet go to Nevada [1]. In 1968 the Federal government agreed to build a network of canals that transport Colorado River water through Arizona known as the Central Arizona Project. The project serves 6 million people– more than 80% of the state’s population [3]. In exchange for the creation of this project, Arizona agreed to junior water rights meaning California would get its share of water before Arizona in times of shortage [1]. Water rights are being used as the main element of debate in determining the allocation of a diminishing Colorado River. 

The Biden administration is pushing the states to reach an agreement that will allow them to cut 2 to 4 million acre-feet in usage and keep the reservoirs from hitting dead pool [1]. California uses more water than any of the states and is the remaining holdout among the seven states in current negotiations [1]. The other six states have signed on to an agreement to make these cuts, but California is proposing its own plan that would put a massive burden on Arizona [1]. California’s plan states that when the reservoirs reach their lowest levels, there will be a cut of nearly 1 million additional acre-feet for Arizona leaving the state with only 600,000 acre-feet despite the state’s allotment of 2.8 million acre-feet [1]. This has created a debate between Arizona and California over who should have to be the first to cut water usage and by what quantity. This debate has slowed progress of the seven states reaching an agreement of water cuts. Arizona and California already use the most water but are petitioning for the other five states to cut their water usage first. The southern part of California, mainly farmers in San Diego and the Imperial Valley, receives water from the CO River. California argues that it has senior rights so Arizona should cut water first, and because they produce so many vegetables and feed for livestock, meaningful cuts would cause a food crisis perhaps affecting a large part of the country [2]. Arizona argues that while the CO River Compact may say Arizona should cut usage first, it does not make sense with the situation the state is facing with climate change and would be causing significant health harms to cities. Furthermore, water cuts would harm Indigenous tribes in Arizona who already receive little water and the government would be violating its obligations to the tribes that have been promised water through treaties. The lack of water from the Colorado River is causing major debate between the states that rely on it to survive with California and Arizona, the river’s biggest users, having the most disagreement. 

Amidst all of the negotiations and debate between state legislators over water rights, one group has been excluded from the conversation– Indigenous people. Specifically important to Arizona’s water negotiations is the Navajo tribe whose reservation, the Navajo Nation, is the largest Native American reservation in the United States and comprises 16 million acres in the Four Corners area [4]. Despite their size and history in Arizona, members of the Navajo Nation lack the easy access to running water that Arizonans who are not Native American take for granted. Thirty percent of Navajo Nation citizens have no running water and Navajo people use 8-10 gallons of water a day, which is about 1/10 of what the average American uses [5]. Historically, the Navajo people have faced systemic injustices which have resulted in inadequate infrastructure and limited economic opportunities which exacerbate their water access problem. The drying up of the Colorado River further compounds this issue for the Navajo tribe. These injustices are a clear environmental justice case. The Nation claims that the federal government has a duty to address the tribe’s water rights and a Supreme Court case argued the matter in March, 2023. The Navajo Nation stated that an 1868 treaty promised sufficient land and water for the Navajos to return to a permanent home in their ancestral territory, but the government has not lived up to that treaty [6]. The tribe was not seeking a decision on rights to the Lower Colorado River specifically, but the tribe’s lawyers said that the federal government’s oversight of the entire Colorado River as well as its duties to the tribe required it to do a full assessment of the Navajo Nation’s water rights, which may impact how Colorado River water is allocated [7]. In June, 2023, the Supreme Court reached a decision in the case, denying the Navajo Nation access to Colorado River water [8]. Despite treaties that the Navajo Nation believed protected their water rights, the tribe remains without adequate access to water. While the Supreme Court might find no legal obligation to the Navajo Nation, for the sake of human rights and justice above mere US law, actions should be taken to implement safe and reliable water sources for all members of the Navajo Nation. 

This case of the lack of water access for the Navajo Nation amidst the Colorado River crisis is an example of environmental injustice. According to the Markkula Center’s Six Ethical Lens, the Justice lens refers to giving each person what they deserve. The lens explains that all individuals should be treated equally unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation. Environmental justice is the fair treatment of all people with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental regulations [9]. The Navajo Nation’s lack of access to clean water is an injustice and specifically an environmental injustice. The tribe does not have the same access to water that other Arizonans not living on the reservation have. Many Navajo households must rely on hauling water from distant sources or depending on unreliable water infrastructure. This puts a significant burden on women and children who are often responsible for collecting water. Furthermore, the Navajo Nation is not being included in the development of policies related to the Colorado River agreements and plans for water allocation. Many people living in the Navajo Nation do not have access to water now, so they should be included in the allocation negotiations to make sure they gain access even as the river loses more water. Ensuring the participation of the Navajo Nation in water allocation decision-making processes is essential to address these injustices and achieve equitable solutions. 

The Colorado River is an integral source of life for millions of people but climate change has led to a sharp decline in water resources. The states that rely on the river for water must now reach an agreement of how to cut their water usage. Amidst these negotiations, the voices of the Navajo tribe should be lifted up to ensure that the Navajo Nation, which has historically experienced environmental injustices related to water accessibility, receives its proper allotment of water.


Works Cited 

[1] Partlow, Joshua. “The Colorado River Drought Crisis: How Did This Happen? Can It Be Fixed?”. The Washington Post, 5 Feb 2023.

[2] Barbaro, Michael, host. “7 States, 1 River and an Agonizing Choice”. The Daily, 31 Jan 2023.

[3] Central Arizona Project. “Water: Brought to You by Central Arizona Project”. CAP. 

[4] “Navajo Nation: History- The People.IHS. 

[5] James, Ian. “Waiting for Water: On the Navajo Nation, Long Lines, Scarce Resources, a Cry for Solutions.AZ Central, 22 Jul 2020. 

[6] Macagnone, Michael. “Supreme Court Appears Divided on Navajo Water Rights Lawsuit.Roll Call, 20 March 2023. 

 [7] Hurley, Lawrence. “Supreme Court Wrestles with Navajo Nation Water Rights Dispute.NBC News, 20 Mar 2023. 

[8] Fletcher, Matthew. “Supreme Court rules 5-4 against Navajo Nation in water rights dispute.SCOTUSblog, June 22, 2023.

[9] EPA. “Environmental Justice”. US EPA. 


Aug 17, 2023