Supreme Court split in Navajo Nation water rights case

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The Supreme Court seemed divided Monday arsenic it weighed a conflict involving nan national authorities and nan Navajo Nation’s quest for water from nan drought-stricken Colorado River.

States that tie h2o from nan stream — Arizona, Nevada and Colorado — and h2o districts successful California that are besides progressive successful nan lawsuit urged nan justices to norm against nan tribe. Colorado says siding pinch nan Navajo Nation will undermine existing agreements and disrupt nan guidance of nan river.

But, arguing connected behalf of nan Navajo Nation, lawyer Shay Dvoretzky told nan justices that nan tribe’s existent h2o petition is modest. The "relief that we are seeking present is an appraisal of nan nation’s needs and a scheme to meet them," he said.

Arguing connected behalf of nan Biden administration, lawyer Frederick Liu said that if nan tribunal were to broadside pinch nan Navajo Nation, nan national authorities could look lawsuits from galore different tribes.


Four of nan court’s justices, including its 3 liberals, seemed sympathetic to nan tribe’s case. But different conservatives including Justice Samuel Alito were skeptical during astir 2 hours of arguments astatine nan precocious court.

Alito asked astir "some of nan existent world impacts" of nan determination and suggested he’d seen figures indicating that "per capita h2o connected nan Navajo Nation is greatly successful excess of per capita h2o for residents of Arizona." He pointed retired that nan Navajo Nation’s original preservation was hundreds of miles distant from nan conception of nan Colorado River it now seeks h2o from.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh besides asked astir nan imaginable consequences of siding pinch nan Navajo Nation, pointing to a little that said much h2o for nan people would needfully mean little h2o for Arizona, striking "at nan bosom of nan societal and economical livelihood" of nan authorities "with dire consequences."

The Colorado River successful nan precocious River Basin is pictured successful Lees Ferry, Arizona, connected May 29, 2021. 

The Colorado River successful nan precocious River Basin is pictured successful Lees Ferry, Arizona, connected May 29, 2021.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The facts of nan lawsuit spell backmost to 2 treaties nan people and nan national authorities signed successful 1849 and 1868. The 2nd established nan preservation arsenic nan tribe’s "permanent home" — a committedness nan Navajo Nation says includes a capable proviso of water. In 2003 nan people sued nan national government, arguing that it had grounded to see aliases protect nan Navajo Nation’s h2o authorities to nan little information of nan Colorado River.

A national proceedings tribunal initially dismissed nan lawsuit, but an appeals tribunal allowed it to spell forward.

"Is it imaginable to person a imperishable home, workplace and raise animals without water?" Justice Neil Gorsuch asked astatine 1 constituent during arguments, suggesting sympathy for nan tribe’s case.


Justice Sonia Sotomayor, participating successful nan lawsuit via telephone because she wasn’t emotion well, said nan authorities was making nan statement that nan Navajo Nation can’t do thing to unit nan authorities to protect its h2o rights, thing she suggested would person been an "odd agreement" for nan people to make.

The Colorado River flows on what is now nan northwestern separator of nan tribe’s reservation, which extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Two of nan river’s tributaries, nan San Juan River and nan Little Colorado River, besides walk alongside and done nan reservation. Still, a 3rd of nan immoderate 175,000 group who unrecorded connected nan reservation, nan largest successful nan country, don’t person moving h2o successful their homes.


The national authorities says it has helped nan people unafraid h2o from nan Colorado River’s tributaries and provided money for infrastructure including pipelines, pumping plants and h2o curen facilities. But it says nary rule aliases pact requires nan authorities to measure and reside nan tribe’s wide h2o needs. The states progressive successful nan case, meanwhile, reason nan Navajo Nation is attempting to make an extremity tally astir a Supreme Court decree that divvied up h2o successful nan Colorado River’s Lower Basin.

A determination successful nan lawsuit is expected by nan extremity of June erstwhile nan Supreme Court typically breaks for its summertime recess.