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Turning the Tide: Water Rights & Indigenous Communities

Apr 19, 2023

As concerns about wildfires and superstorms, water and air quality, and the impact of fossil fuels proliferate, environmental concerns are becoming increasingly common in national as well as regional discussions. In a number of areas, marginalized communities are on the front lines of this climate crisis and an 2021 EPA study found that “the most severe harms from climate change fall disproportionately upon underserved communities who are least able to prepare for, and recover from, heat waves, poor air quality, flooding, and other impacts.” 

The Flint water crisis (still unresolved after eight years), the Standing Rock protest movement, and a number of other emergencies across the country have demonstrated the growing urgency of the situation—and the need to acknowledge the impact that environmental disasters are having on communities of color. In many of these cases, Native Americans and other Indigenous communities have been the first to feel this impact—and often the first to respond.  

In this special Earth Week edition of Reframing the Conversation, panelists explored the number of ways Indigenous communities are being affected by environmental crises, why these problems continue to occur, and how many are becoming involved and pushing back.

  • portrait of Heather Tanana

    Heather Tanana, JD, MPH

    Assistant Research Professor
    S.J. Quinney College of Law
    The University of Utah


    Heather Tanana is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and Assistant Research Professor & Wallace Stegner Center Fellow at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of Utah and a Masters in Public Health from Johns Hopkins University. Heather is experienced in state, federal, and tribal courts and clerked for Judge Nuffer at the U.S. District Court for the District of Utah. Heather’s research interests include exploring the overlay between environmental and health policy in Indian Country. Much of her work focuses on tribal water issues, from climate change impacts to Colorado River management. She leads the Water & Tribe Initiative’s Universal Access to Clean Water project. The project seeks to bring awareness to the lack of clean, safe, and reliable drinking water in Indian country and to make tangible progress on securing water access for all Americans.

    Maria Archibald

    Maria Archibald

    Lands and Water Programs Coordinator
    Sierra Club Utah Chapter


    Maria (she/her) has spent much of the last decade organizing regionally and nationally with youth-led climate justice groups including Uplift, Utah Youth Environmental Solutions (UYES), and the Power Shift Network. Before moving to Utah in 2020, she managed the Rising Leaders Program at the Grand Canyon Trust and facilitated political education and community organizing workshops for young environmental justice advocates. She recently graduated from the University of Utah’s Environmental Humanities graduate program and currently works as the Lands and Water Programs Coordinator at the Sierra Club, where she combines legislative advocacy and grassroots action to protect Great Salt Lake and other life-giving waters across Utah.

    portrait of Alastair Lee Bitsoi

    Alastair Lee Bitsóí, MPH

    Freelance Writer/Creative
    Near The Water Media & Communications Group


    Alastair Lee Bitsóí (Diné, he/him) is from the Navajo Nation community of Naschitti, below the Chooshgai Mountains on the New Mexico–Arizona state line. He has been an award-winning news reporter for The Navajo Times and The Salt Lake Tribune. He also formerly served as a communications director for the Indigenous-led land conservation nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah. His consulting business, Near the Water Communications and Media Group, trains media, nonprofits, businesses, and governments in cultural sensitivity. Alastair is co-editor with Brooke Larsen of the Torrey House Press anthology New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, and Climate Crisis. Along with being a 2021 Public Voices Fellow on the Climate Crisis with the Op-Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and being a 2022 Explore Fund Council member with The NorthFace, he has a master’s degree in public health from New York University College of Global Public Health and is an alumnus of Gonzaga University. He now writes as a correspondent for High Country News and other media outlets.

    Leah Richardson-Oppliger

    Leah Richardson-Oppliger, MS, PE

    Water Rights Engineer
    Utah Division of Water Rights


    Leah Richardson-Oppliger (she/her) is currently a distribution engineer at the Utah Division of Water Rights (Division). In 2015, she received her undergraduate degree at Northern Arizona University in civil engineering and in 2018, received her master’s degree at Utah State University where she specialized in in-situ water sensor data analysis. Leah worked as a drainage engineer and then a river engineer before joining the Division. At the Division, she works with commissioners and other distribution engineers to develop system specific models that relate water rights to actual water usage. Her goal is to make water rights data more accessible to the public to create more transparency and, in turn, more accurate water records.

    portrait of Jeff Rose

    Jeff Rose, PhD

    Assistant Professor
    Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism; College of Health
    The University of Utah


    Jeff Rose, Ph.D. (he/him) is an assistant professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism and an affiliate faculty with the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah. Jeff’s research agenda uses political ecology to take a social and environmental justice approach to nature-society relations. His research tends to leverage qualitative and spatial methods to examine systemic inequities expressed through class, race, political economy, and relationships to nature. He has pursued a diverse set of questions that critically examine issues of public space, productions of nature, connection to place, neoliberalism, and various non-normative behaviors. A primary focus of Jeff’s research is exploring the social and environmental justice elements of homelessness across the urban-wildland interface.


Emma E. Houston: Well, hopefully, you have greeted those who are sitting next to you. My name is Emma Houston. I am one of the assistant vice presidents for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and the chief diversity officer here at the University of Utah.

Before we begin our discussion today, I would like to acknowledge that this land, which is named for the Ute Tribe, is the traditional and ancestral homeland of the Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Tribes. The University of Utah recognizes and respects the enduring relationship that exists between many Indigenous Peoples and their traditional homelands. We respect the sovereign relationship between tribes, states, and the federal government, and we affirm the University of Utah’s commitment to a partnership with Native Nations and Urban Indian communities through research, education, and community outreach activities.

We want to extend a special thank you to our partners at the Hinckley Institute of Politics and Sustainability for this special Earth Week edition of “Reframing the Conversation.” The moderator for today’s event is Heather … Tanana.

Heather Tanana: Yep.

Emma E. Houston: Heather Tanana. Tanana is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and assistant research professor and Wallace Steiner Center fellow at the S.J. Quinney College of Law. She holds a Juris Doctorate from the University of Utah and a master’s in public health from Johns Hopkins University. Professor Tanana is experienced in state, federal, and tribal courts and clerk for Judge Nuffer at the US District Court for the District of Utah. Her research interest includes exploring the overlay between environmental and health policies in Indian Country. Much of her work focuses on tribal water issues from climate change impacts to Colorado River management. She leads the Water & Tribe Initiative’s Universal Access to Clean Water project. The project seeks to bring awareness to the lack of clean, safe, and reliable drinking water in Indian country and to make tangible progress on securing water access for all Americans. And before I turn this over to our moderator, just want to make mention that normally we serve a meal at the beginning, but in respect for Ramadan, it will be served after the session ends. Thank you. If you will welcome our panelists and our moderator.

Heather Tanana: Okay. Well thanks so much for that warm welcome and I’m really happy to be here with a great lineup of panelists with a lot of really different expertise and work experience that they’ve been engaged in. And water is such an important critical issue. I mean, just think of like when you woke up, what did you do? I hope most of you brushed your teeth, right? That is gonna involve water. Did you take a shower? Did you make coffee or tea, right? Is there paint on your walls, right? Everything involves water. Did you eat today? That involves water. And we’re at this real critical point here in the west where our water is diminishing and the water that’s available, the quality is also being impacted and impacting our uses and Indigenous communities. Mostly I think we’ll be talking about tribal nations here in the United States. These are the communities that are being most impacted and so lot to discuss today.

Couple items, we will have a Q and A at the end, so please think of some questions to ask. And for those who are online, you can add your question on the box in the EDI livestream webpage. So just to launch us off, what I’d like to do is go ahead and starting with Alastair here on the send and going down the line, just have them do a brief introduction of who they are, what they’ve been involved in, and why they’re here today.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: I don’t need the mic, do I?

Heather Tanana: Oh, you’ve got it.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Okay. All right. Okay. Well, hello. Yá át tééh. I am Alastair Lee Bitsóí. I am Diné from the Navajo Nation, which is basically like six to seven hours southeast of here depending on how you drive. For me it’s seven hours since I’m from the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation, so even though I am considered New Mexican Navajo or whatever, I have strong work ties and professional ties here in Salt Lake that brings me to this panel. And I believe I purged my Instagram the other day and I think my Instagram was probably one of those factors in like, “oh, let’s bring Alastair into the DEI conversation around water and Indigenous communities.” But I know Heather, so it’s nice to see her on a panel, and I know you, I forgot your name, Maria, and then I met you the other, during Halloween, and so like there’s a lot of like close ties and I think that’s a beautiful thing about being here in Salt Lake, how everyone’s like degrees separated from each other.

But when it comes to water, I am so my first clan is Near the Water People. So I come from a water clan and then I’m born (speaking in Navajo) which is the Towering House People Clan, which is like, like my paternal grandmother, and then that’s my dad’s side of the family, and I’m also, (speaking in Navajo), which is Red Streak Bottom People, and then which is the Mud People. And so those are my collective like kinship but also I guess my bloodlines and where I come from.

And I am involved with this work through, I’m a young farmer, I’m also a writer, I’m a journalist, I’m also a community organizer, but it’s kind of hard to meddle between journalism and advocacy, ’cause apparently there’s this ethic that you can’t break from the other. And so I’m freelance right now, and I am writing a lot of stories that are beginning to center around water. And I graduated from Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington and got my Master’s in public health at NYU in New York City, and I’ll be going back to school to be a science writer because of the need of water and coverage in the media at Columbia this fall. So I’m moving back to New York, which I’m really happy about, and I wanna merge my study in public health with science writing and merge them to navigate stories where it’s my goal to center Indigenous narratives in a respectful, competent way, and I think those are reasons why I’m invited to this conversation, but I love talking about water as well.

Maria Archibald: Thanks Alastair. I’m Maria Archibald. My pronouns are she/her and I am not an Indigenous person. I’m a White person settled on so-called Salt Lake City, the unseated territory of Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute Peoples. And I was originally born and raised on the east coast and I came to the West in 2016. I spent four years in Flagstaff, Arizona working for the Grand Canyon Trust there, and in that role I did a lot of collaborations with Indigenous Peoples, primarily Hopi and Navajo Peoples. I started and managed the Rising Leaders program there, which supported young people, primarily teens, and early twenties, in mobilizing and taking action around climate and water issues. I moved to Utah in 2020 to come to the U. I recently graduated from the environmental humanities program here and worked for the sustainability office here during and after grad school, and I just recently started a role at the Sierra Club as the Lands and Water Programs Coordinator. So it’s lovely to be here. Thank you for having me.

Leah Richardson-Oppliger: Awesome. Hello everyone. Thanks Maria. My name is Leah. I use she/her pronouns, and I currently work for the Division of Water Rights for the state of Utah. And I would say that that’s the main reason why I’ve been invited to this conversation. Water has been a very important part of my, I guess, my life, but more importantly my direction. So when I started my undergrad, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I chose civil engineering. I don’t know why, but I did, and then as I was going through that program, I realized very quickly that water was a very important part of the West. So I grew up in Colorado, southern Colorado, so not that much water there. And then my undergrad was done in Arizona.

And I would say that the very first time I really understood how important policy dictates our water insecurities and things like that was I actually went to a, I guess a presentation is what I would call it, where the USGS was proving that Phoenix had right to an aquifer that a smaller city was using. And so what ultimately came of that is that this city was no longer allowed to use that aquifer after about seven years, and I remember asking my professor, “okay, so what does that mean for this community?” And no one knew. It’s like, I guess they need to find more water somewhere. And that was just super alarming to me, because I’m like, “okay, so these communities may potentially have to break up and leave this area if they cannot find a new source for water.” And so I ultimately came to Utah to do a master’s degree at USU and then I came down here and yeah, now I work in water rights. So yeah, I think that’s what brings me here.

Jeff Rose: Hi everybody, my name is Jeff Rose. I am an assistant professor in the College of Health in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism. My background is thinking through nature society relations, the way that people relate to the non-human world around them. One of the things that we know is that relationships with nature, interactions with nature have durable, lasting ongoing health benefits, mental health benefits, physical health benefits, and then community health benefits. One of the things that I also try to bring to this conversation is a reminder that our relationships with the non-human world are political. They are influenced by issues of race, class, gender, Indigeneity, and many other relationships.

And so one of the things that I’m really trying to think about here and kind of bring to this conversation is what are those health benefits and who has access to those health benefits? Because one of the things that we know from our environmental justice world is that those benefits are not distributed evenly across the population and they’re heavily divided across some of those traditional social markers. And so encouraging us all to kind of think critically about those relationships and the factors that lead to those uneven distributions.

Heather Tanana: Awesome. Well, thanks so much everyone for those brief introductions. These are really challenging issues we’re facing today and like water and in other areas, we really need interdisciplinary work to do it. It’s really easy if you’re a lawyer, if you’re an engineer, you know you’re working for the state to stay in your own lane and not really cross-collaborate, but that’s what we need. We need the nonprofits coming in with the academic sector, and the advocates on the ground who are working at the community level and forging relationships with the state. So that’s what I’m really excited about this panel and again, really the diverse viewpoints that they’re bringing.

But to start us off, I’m gonna turn to Alastair because really the average American has very little knowledge of what it’s like to live on a reservation. You know, they most likely have never been down to a reservation, right? Here in Utah, a lot of people go down to Moab for spring break and they stop there. They don’t continue on past Blanding onto Monument Valley, which is beautiful landscape by the way, and a big industry of tourism for Navajo Nation. And so that’s kind of just to start us off Alastair, you know, what do you think it’s important for folks to understand about tribes and other Indigenous people to even be able to engage in discussions about, you know, their communities and environmental impacts?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Yeah, I think that’s a great question. I think there’s many answers to it. We can be Heather’s approach and be a lawyer and like emphasize tribal federal trust responsibility and the accountability and the treaty rights, and I guess one of the action items of course is now that I’m literally entering water rights work and those conversations among the community is like get to know like Winters doctrine, right? Is that would you say the basic, at least when it comes to water rights claims in, when it comes to tribes, I would say take a class, if your university offers Federal Indian Law 101, I think that’s a great baseline to understand from a dry legal standpoint, what is a, like for instance, in a context, I prefer not to use reservation. I feel like that’s a derogatory word. I prefer to use, like I’m from the Navajo Nation, so I prefer to like empower and reframing old words like that that can be derogatory. And I feel like me being proud, like I’m Diné, I say that first and if no one gets that, I’m like, “okay, I am Navajo.” If you don’t get that, then I will reluctantly say I’m American. I mean that’s the last resort, and if I need to do that, I’ll break it down to that level. So there’s a level of demographic identity that I have, but Heather can back me up on this as well as political. So tribes are different from regular racial-like categories we have in America, like compared to White or Latino or Black or there’s that political relationship that we have with America. So we’re like a nation within a nation or you could argue, I don’t know, depending on what side of the spectrum you are, but like, well, maybe we’re not so sovereign as we are.

And I grew up in the Navajo Nation, so all the work that I do, I know I’ve been called out on Twitter, but like I grew up in a rural community, I didn’t have the privilege to move to an urban setting and grow up there. And so like everything that I do I represent, I do represent all native people, but I also, my heart is especially for the rural Native Americans in these spaces that don’t have that privilege and don’t have that access to basic water or basic utility. And so that’s my motivation and it’s to inspire that demographic of people that I come from and what I represent. And so I grew up without water. I remember an instance where I, you know, parents are just like, “do your chores!” And you know, like one day I remember I was, I’m an older sibling, so I had to navigate those structures of I guess trauma as well. I’m going through trauma work right now, so I’m unraveling a lot of these things. And the trauma could be attributed to like blood memory, it could be attributed to colonization, the removal of us from our lands where we were migratory people or we lived near water, different sources. Or it could be temporary in this world in 2023.

And I remember this episode or reality of like, like getting water from the faucet ’cause we didn’t have propane that day. And I was told, and my mom was just like, “do the chores.” And I was like, “okay.” And I did, and I think there might have been a little fight going on or whatever, but I remember I spilled boiling hot water on my left foot and I had to, that remained something significant, because in my journey, because I learned when I went to Gonzaga in undergrad, I was like, “oh, I’m here with students with old and new money.” I didn’t know the financial differences of where I grew up because I feel like we’re culturally rich as people, and so like I want to clarify that between financial, and so I feel like those are things that I navigate. And so like when it comes to that water, you know, like I was, I had puss on my feet. And I feel like those realities of my livelihood, it makes me tell the reality through storytelling of our situations and beautiful journeys that we go through. But I know there’s this word resilience, I know there’s criticism in the community now. Like why do you want to be resilient? We don’t have to be resilient. It’s the systems that make us, force us to be resilient, but we don’t have to be. Like, we can just rest. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been resting. I’ve been like internally peeling back these layers and like how do I, now that I’m going through this journey, like how do I elevate those narratives of growing up in the Navajo Nation and like how do I like elevate others from where I come from to do what they want and also identify their gifts, whatever those gifts are.

And so I, growing up in a Navajo Nation, I always just always knew and I guess it helps that I have to go back and I’ll be moving from Salt Lake in two weeks just to go farm, to go be grounded again just to revitalize that food source and that’s where like, even healing the cultural lateral violence that exist in a community and how do you dismantle that or how do you end that? And I feel like farming to me is one of those ways that I’m a young farmer, and I don’t know what other questions will be asked, but I know there’s the point of where I’m on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation. So how that infrastructure right now from the Upper Basin claims is now being built into our community. So the pipeline’s going through along the highway from Monticello all the way to Gal—well, not Monticello, but there’s Highway 491. So from Shiprock all the way to Gallup, it’s called the Utah Nav—not Utah Navajo, but Gallup Navajo Water Supply project. And those are the Navajo Nation’s water rights claims of the Upper Basin of the Colorado. You can fact-check me here, but it’s to the San Juan River, and so the pipeline right now as we speak is being built, and on that side of Navajo, we would always be told we would get water. We would get water.

And so I would like to say I don’t feel sorry for people who don’t have access to water that are in privileged communities. I know, and I think that’s where you gotta reframe some things, like I know there were headlines about this Scottsdale, like bourgeois city hauling water. I’m like, “oh wow.” Like, “welcome to our plight, welcome to our situation.” Like welcome to that world and our reality. And so for me, the inequities are obviously stark and contrasting to the snow melt that we got excessively here or the winter here. And so I feel like systemically tribes and Indigenous people have historically have learned to conserve because of the structures that prevented, that enhanced them to naturally conserve. So like for me, just like boiling that day, like I know how to survive without electricity or like running water and I don’t think the rest of America knows how.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, thanks so much for saying that. I mean we could just unpack so many of the different issues you brought up and fill up the rest of the time, you know, so 574 federally recognized tribes across the United States, that does not include the state recognized tribes. That does not include the tribes that had terminated status and are trying to be re-recognized and reclaim their identity in the country. And the experiences we’re facing in Navajo Nation really are water, lack of water access, there’s not the infrastructure, there’s the history of uranium mining, and other extractive industry that’s degraded the water quality and made it unsafe. I mean there’s study coming out of Arizona, Navajo babies are being born today with traces of uranium in their blood. Like what? That is, would not be acceptable anywhere else!

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: But I will say where I’m from, I will claim we have the best tasting water, where there’s no uranium exposures, there’s no mines around where I live.

Heather Tanana: Protect your space.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: But I’m like, our waters the best tasting, I guarantee it, because I live right below the mountain range that’s just a mountain range.

Heather Tanana: Yeah. So right, those are the challenges that just came up to me, and then also just wanna also emphasize the discussion around terminology. So when, just to finish my thought before, right, challenges the Navajo Nation is facing, very different from what those up in the Pacific West are dealing with. They’ve got like too much water going on, right? It’s threatening, they’re land-based, they’re having to, Alaska having to consider relocation. And so you can’t take one issue, get to know one community and be like, “ooh, I’m an expert out there now I can go into everything.” The challenges are going to be different.

And then yeah, emphasizing again the the terminology use, ’cause that same differences like we and campus, I remember we had a discussion around our native faculty staff and creating space for us and being like, “what do we wanna be called? Are we Indigenous? Are we American Indian? Are we native,” right? And it’s gonna vary too. And so really asking whoever you’re talking with, how do you refer to yourself? What do you wanna be referred to? Because I’ll say it does vary and it’s an ongoing discussion in the law too because a lot of the language in these old legal cases are horrible. I almost wore my “merciless Indian savage” shirt today, right? Because that’s what our Declaration of Independence refers to the Indigenous people of this country as. And so it’s challenging when you’re talking about certain legal policies or law because the terms are “Indian,” right? The terms are “reservation” and those aren’t really terms that I think a lot of us want to be using anymore, and how do we make that shift. So loved it. Thank you so much Alastair.

You know, encourage you to go on and I’ll throw out two reports there. You know, the US Commission on Civil Rights in 2019 issued a report called Broken Promises and just goes through and outlines all the different ways the federal government has failed to hold up its end of the deal, talks about natural resources, water infrastructure, health, education, so many subjects. And then Deb Haaland’s report, right? That came out of her boarding school initiative also talks about these policies of the government that were intentionally targeted to destroy tribal communities, to take their land base and eliminate them, right? Like that’s our history. And so just, you know, we can maybe at the end share some resources but there’s always much more to be learned. Just kinda looking at time, I think one of the things I’m gonna hop over to, sticking on water, is going over to Leah. So Leah, you know, again, like many people don’t understand the history of Indigenous people in this country, I think a lot of people also don’t understand like how water management works. Like where does our water even come from and how does the state collect data, manage it, how it’s used. Just a little bit of background, I think, would be helpful for people. If you don’t mind doing what I call a water 101, water sources and use.

Leah Richardson-Oppliger: Sure. Okay, so I guess for the state of Utah, I mean we use both surface and groundwater sources. In the Great Salt Lake Basin, we’re mainly looking at three rivers. It’s gonna be the Weber, Beaver, wait, yeah, Weber, Bear, and Jordan. And so, I mean I’m sure that we’ve all seen the Jordan River, like if you ever go to the Jordan River Trail, that’s actually one of our main water sources. I’d say a little bit more southern, like southern central in our state, we’re using more groundwater. So we have kind of large groundwater aquifers and we’ve actually created groundwater management plans to try to determine how to cull the use of water in those areas, mainly because they’ve sunken a lot over time. And so it’s like when we mine a lot of aquifers, which is what is happening here, that causes a deep sink. And so if we continue to go down this path, we will collapse those aquifers. And so we have groundwater management plans in place where we’re trying to mitigate some of those changes. And then I guess in terms of our surface water, the way that it works in our division and for the state of Utah, which is kind of unique to other areas, is that we have these things called distribution systems. And in our state we have 43 of those and it’s split according to smaller basins.

And essentially what will happen is there’s a person named a river commissioner and they are the ones who are ensuring that water is allocated based off of, I guess, I don’t wanna get too deep into this, but the way our state works and the way that a lot of other western states work is off of a priority doctrine. And so what that means is kind of a first in time, first in right situation. So if you had a claim to water for a lot of people in the late 1800s, you know, they went to the state of Utah and they said, “hey, I use water on this river.” And so that allowed them to lay claim to using that water indefinitely essentially as long as they had that water right. And so today if people have those old water rights, they essentially have, they’re first in line in terms of being able to use that water. And so I guess what I would say in that case is, so we have situations where a person has a prior appropriation, they’re allowed to use water first on a river regardless of where they are on that river. And so when we’re looking at municipalities or like what we are mainly using our water for, those municipalities had to acquire old water rights to ensure that they would always have right to use the water in our area, so.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, and do you have a little of just, in the hierarchy of like most of our water is used by municipalities or agriculture, just to give people a rough outline of like the water sector use?

Leah Richardson-Oppliger: Yeah, absolutely. So about 70% of the water use in Utah is from agriculture. About 15% is strictly municipal, and that means that that would also include anything like watering, I guess golf courses, since that’s like a hot-button issue. Golf courses, any sort of water that we are drinking, anything like that, that’s about 15%. And then the rest I would say is between industrial and all other uses. And so 70% is farming.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, yeah. Fascinating. And agriculture is definitely a hot topic and we can talk about that more, right, because we just hold a symposium at the law school on the Great Salt Lake and people are saying, you know, okay, agriculture’s using all this water, where’s that product going? And a lot of it’s going outside the US, right? A lot towards alfalfa. Fascinating. So if we have any questions for those, it’s about like the thirsty water using plants and should we be doing those or not?

I’ll tag on, Alastair had mentioned Winter’s Rights doctrine before and so that’s a 1908 US Supreme Court case where the court found that when reservations were established or set aside for tribes, with that came a tribal water right, and it’s sufficient to meet the purpose of the reservation. And so just think about that, like what is the purpose of a reservation? And some very much, right, because at that time it was, if you wanna be successful you need to be Christian and farmers, and so agriculture was a big push for many tribes, not for all, right, fisheries, hunting, salmon protection was for some, not for all, and the key to the Winter’s kind of tribal water rights is that the date of priority typically ties to when the reservation was established. So those are very old when you go back to the treaties or the executive orders that establish these reservations. And disuse does not, if a tribe isn’t utilizing that water right, they don’t lose the water right. And that’s different from our state users where you don’t use it, you lose it. And so we’ve created this incentive, and has beneficial use, and I don’t know, Leah-

Leah Richardson-Oppliger: Yeah, I guess I would like to kind of clear up a little bit on this “use it or lose it” idea. So we do have something in place that says that if you do not use a water right for a duration of seven years consecutively, there is a chance of getting something called non-use. And so what would be required from there is that someone needs to prove that they are going to use that water on that land. But in terms of use it or lose it, it doesn’t work in the way that I feel like a lot of people in this state have come to think of it as working. You do not lose your water right, or lose a portion of your water right if you are not using it for like, let’s say a year. Let’s say that you decided to irrigate 40 acres instead of your normal beneficial use of 80 acres, but you did that for a year. The state is not gonna then come and cut that water right and say now you can only irrigate 40 acres forever. We just don’t work that way. What we are looking at is flow related, especially for surface water. We’re looking at flows and we look at the natural flow of a system for any given day. And so if a person does not use their allocated flow for the day, it’s gone because we’re in a natural system in the sense of, you know, if, if a water, if a river is running at 100 CFS in a day, the next day it might be running at 80. That’s just our natural system. Right? And so in theory you could argue that you’re losing 20, right? But you didn’t really, it’s just that the natural system is lower that day. Does that makes sense?

Heather Tanana: Good, important clarification. The challenge, right, with tribal communities is a lot of ’em don’t have the infrastructure to use their water, so the allocated tribal water rights on the average Colorado River basin flow is 25% of the river. And that doesn’t include some of the tribes that are outstanding that haven’t settled their water rights. And so what you’ll hear Southern Ute arguing and Ute Indian Tribe is we haven’t been able to access that money, other people are using our water, we’re not getting any compensation for that, but we have programs right now for farmers, to not use their water, not lose or get the risk of losing their water right, and they’re getting paid. So those are kind of some of the interesting dialogues. But we have to be creative in, you know, banking, leasing, you know, development, I think, to address the water climate change.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Well I think it depends on the settlement too, right? And tribes don’t—

Heather Tanana: Automatically lease.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Automatically lease. I think on my side of the Navajo Nation, it’s written in a disclaimer that we would not lease it out. But in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, which is Ute Navajo water right settlement, I think what I’ve learned in my reporting over the years, I started at the Navajo Times, I wrote for the Salt Lake Tribune, and I lived in St. George and tried to write about St. George’s excessive growth, and I learned through my reporting over the years and learning from lawyers like Heather, like how I feel like in the Utah conversation with the water rights when it comes to Navajo Nation, I felt like maybe they learned lessons in that first settlement, and that’s a larger quantity of water that Ute Navajos are northern portion that straddles the Arizona-Utah state line would get a larger, I don’t know what’s the word, access or volume of water.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, allocation.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: But those are, that’s just long periods away and they still gotta develop and I think in maybe in that settlement they can lease it. And when it comes to Arizona, which has been in the Supreme Court like that’s a whole other animal and another whole jurisdiction. And so I feel like with that water rights conversation, that’s where, I think that’s to the little Colorado River, which is the lower basin, which I’m glad I’m from the upper basin, ’cause that’s a little bit established already, but I just wanted to, you triggered that thought.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, yeah, totally. And, maybe bringing into this, I’d love to turn to Jeff, ’cause Jeff does some really cool research about the relationship of people and the environment and the, you know, benefits that people have when they engage and the different values. So Jeff, turning over to you, how does our connection to place fit in with these discussions?

Jeff Rose: Yeah, so one of the things that we know is that people have relationships with the places they call home. This is a fact that cuts across communities, across cultures. A lot of times we refer to that as place attachment, which are the social and emotional bonds that we have with particular landscapes. And lots of research is established that place attachment is also correlated with lots of other kind of pro-environmental or pro-conservation behaviors. And that’s broad, right? That’s cross-cultural, that’s, you know, in multiple nations and things like that. But one of the things that doesn’t necessarily take into consideration is it doesn’t take into consideration things like traditional ecological knowledge or other ways of interacting with space and place in those relationships.

And so a couple things that maybe I’ll highlight that I think bring in a little bit more of a local and an intimate set of relations that people have with their local environment, including the water in that environment is there’s this kind of emerging body of research looking at hydrophilia, which is, you know, quite literally a love of water. And of course if we look back across human history and even across animal history, people tend to glomerate around water, around, you know, places where rivers come together, around lake shores, around rivers, around these kind of large bodies of water. And that’s from kind of a macrogeographical perspective.

We can also shrink that down though, and we can bring that into these more intimate relationships in that people seek out, and I, you know, invite y’all to think about your own childhood or you know, other childhoods that you’ve observed. And think about the relationships that people have with those like small bodies of water. Think about the creeks or the wetlands and think about a lot of those waters that are deemed unusable for commercial purposes. And those are spaces of life. Those are spaces of close relationships between people and the non-human world around them. I’m thinking about, I’m from the southeast and I’m thinking about maroons in the swamp. So there’s a classic history of these throwaway spaces where swamps are unusable because we can’t convert them into capital very easily. But these were spaces of refuge for people. These were spaces where they can get away from oppressive systems. These are places where they can hide, but they can also sustain culture, they can sustain values, they can sustain relationships. And I think one of the things that I would encourage us all to think about is what are the ways in which water kind of broadly in this kind of macro-scale leads to life. And then what are the ways in which it sustains our life on an everyday basis? What are the ways that it leads to our mental health and certainly our physical health and the health of the community, the human and non-human community that we’re a part of?

Heather Tanana: Yeah, I really love that because you know, historically, again, tribes not included in Colorado river basin management discussions and the change now is this recognition that they should be, and one of the things tribes are bringing to the discussion is the Colorado River basin isn’t just about how much money, or not money, but ends up being money almost, water, right, this state’s getting or this and that. It’s, we need to protect the basin as a whole. There are a lot of species and the whole ecosystem that depend on that and leaving water in for the basin health is gonna have benefits for us as a community as a whole too. And so it’s just really cool, different, there’s this upper basin, Colorado River Tribes, and it’s like with a bunch of NGOs too where they put out a vision for the basin statement.

I know we’re getting close to Q and A time, so what I wanna do is shift over to Maria and talking about some of the responses, you know, we’ve talked about the challenges, but tribal communities, Indigenous people are also really engaging in creative solutions, right? Bringing attention to these issues, educating, and so can you talk about how Indigenous communities are responding and particularly, I know you do a lot with youth and like the youth role that’s happening in movement.

Maria Archibald: Yeah, I can definitely speak a lot to the piece of working with young people. I think I also just wanna add that in my experience in partnership with tribal communities and supporting Indigenous resistance, I’ve done a lot of organizing in my previous work in the White Mesa community with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which is fighting a uranium mill and a tailings pond that threatens the aquifer that they depend on. And I’ve also done a lot of organizing with youth around that issue. And I’ve also done some organizing with folks on Black Mesa who have been fighting basically strip mining and theft of water in an aquifer there for generations.

If we have time later, I can also get into, the organization I work for, the Sierra Club, has an incredibly problematic history of essentially sacrificing the community of White Mesa in exchange for protecting the Grand Canyon from hydroelectric dams and sort of had some behind closed doors deals with legislators at the time to sacrifice Black Mesa and strip mine it for coal to provide power to send to Tucson, Phoenix, and booming cities in Arizona. So there’s a lot of really problematic histories in working with nonprofits and in my experience partnering with Indigenous communities and young people, people are rising up almost everywhere that there is an environmental justice issue.

I wanna say that in terms of the effects of environmental issues, every environmental issue in this country is happening on Indigenous land, and so if there are effects on people at all, those effects are often tenfold on Indigenous communities, and it’s often these communities that are really rising to the front lines. And I, as a nonprofit worker, I also wanna sort of call to other non-Indigenous led nonprofits and White organizers that at least in my experience, Indigenous resistance doesn’t always look familiar to us as White people. It’s not necessarily always taking the form of campaigns and deliverables and measurable goals and things like that. For example, on Black Mesa, existence and refusing to leave a place that colonization and extractive industry has been trying to steal for generations is an incredibly valid form of resistance. And so as White people and as NGOs, it’s really important that we support efforts like that that just, you know, our community care and existence and not necessarily things that fit our own campaign metrics.

In terms of working with youth, I guess I’ll shift gears just a tiny bit. I have a lot of history of working with young people when I was a young person. I’m about to turn 30 next week so I don’t think I can say I’m a young person anymore, but I’ve been doing youth organizing since I was a youth and continue to support youth in youth organizing. And currently, I’m working with a group called Utah Youth Environmental Solutions or UYES which was founded in 2017 by a group of high school students on the heels of the People’s Climate March. And that group of young people actually is responsible for writing and passing the resolution HCR 007 in 2018, which is the first time that climate change was acknowledged as existing and being human-caused in the state of Utah, which unfortunately for our legislature, it’s a pretty radical thing to say. And in 2020 that group of young people realized that climate education is being systematically withheld from young people in the state and by the state.

And so they decided that they also wanted to kind of create another arm to their work and sort of fill that gap directly and provide the education that’s lacking from the state to other young people. So for about a year and a half, this group of high school and some early college students planned a month long training program, which they launched for the first time last year and are doing again this August. And it was focused on the Great Salt Lake and this group of young people is predominantly young people of color and they really wanted to highlight how what’s happening at the Great Salt Lake is a racialized issue and how the public health effects, the air quality effects are going to be and already are being disproportionately felt by folks on the west side of the city who are often low-income folks and/or people of color. And also they wanted to highlight how, when we think about losing a place, what more does that mean for Indigenous people who have cultural, medicinal religious ties to that place? And so they created this training program last year which culminated in a direct action at the lake. They staged a die-in where all the young people brought gravestones and read a eulogy for the lake, and one by one sort of dropped dead with headstones at their heads reading the different reasons that they as young people would die if the Great Salt Lake were to dry up.

And I think when it comes to young people, I wanna say that they are incredibly capable and imaginative and have a huge capacity to create change and yet they’re often ignored and tokenized by environmental groups and nonprofits, and in my experience I found that a lot of groups are really eager to work with young people when it’s a branding or marketing opportunity, but not so much as an authentic partnership. And I think this tokenization only is expounded when we’re talking about young people of color and Indigenous people. And here in Salt Lake City, you know, these young people have really established themselves as leaders when it comes to water issues in Great Salt Lake, but they really had to fight for a seat at the table and are often still left out of conversations.

And so I just, yeah, I think I wanna give sort of a dual call to action that as White people who work for nonprofits, one, Indigenous movements don’t necessarily look the way that we’re familiar with when it comes to campaigns and deliverables, and that is just as if not far more valid than any other way of organizing. And it’s our responsibility to show up and authentically support that. And I also wanna say that young people, particularly young people of color have power. They’re smart, they’re informed, they’re capable, and they’re under-resourced, and it’s our responsibility to also resource those movements and to be in authentic partnership with them.

Heather Tanana: Awesome. Yeah, I love those points you made and I think some of them can be applied more broadly to tribal communities as well, that sometimes the partnerships aren’t true partnerships, they’re not about building, sustaining capacity in there for them. You know, these movements should be community driven by those who are being impacted. And a lot of times I think, I love that tokenizing, ’cause yeah, you get the one native person involved and they’re in the photos but not in a meaningful way.

So definitely something to think about as you partner, ’cause the reality also is from these policies, from the boarding school era, from our child removal state, federal actions that happened, there is some diminished capacity in tribal communities. A lot of times when they want an attorney, when they need physicians or educators, it’s outsiders having to come in. So just, you know, I encourage you like that need is there, help us fulfill it, but if you come in, be respectful, come in and learning, and my hope is, you know, ultimately all those positions will be filled by our rising Indigenous youth who are doing amazing stuff. Really Cool.

If there’s any questions in the audience, happy to take that. I have more questions for them, but we’ve flown by, but I wanna get some, the audience looks like we have one right up front.

Q&A Moderator: Yes, if you have any questions, raise your hand and I’ll run the mic to you and if you’re joining us online, put your questions in the box and we’ll get those asked as well.

Audience Member 1: First, thank you all for being here. Great discussion. The thing that resonated with me was a comment you had made sort of in the last few seconds, I hesitate to call it an issue, but the tendency for outsiders to come in to provide maybe these higher level, you know, expert professions, and I’m wondering if things like, you know, reduced access to water specifically has stunted the growth of tribal nations or prevented some of this upward mobility and potential to do things like educate and things like that.

Heather Tanana: Yeah, yeah, Alastair you have some thoughts initially?

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Yeah, I wanted to add to that. Thank you, that’s a great question, and Maria’s thoughts, I appreciate that, and I feel like even the media does the same thing. Like I’m in media and so they helicopter in and out of our community just to get the story. And so like I definitely push back on that and that’s kind of why I’m studying journalism, but as far as solutions in the community and whether access to water is a barrier in like how it maybe impacts life expectancies or health outcomes in our communities, I think so. Like it’s definitely a factor. If we had water, I mean if everyone in the Navajo Nation or other tribal communities had equitable infrastructure like the rest of the world in America, then I think we would see more Navajo students here at the University of Utah dominating the academics, you know what I mean? That’s how I think about it.

And as a solution, I think of it, I mean it took layers to get here now, and evolutions, ’cause I would say like younger Alastair was into a convertible, into capitalism, like “I want a big mansion,” you know, that false American dream and I had to do a lot of like healing here in the hurt, and unpeeling and I’m like, “I don’t need a convertible, I need a truck. I need a truck to get me to farm, I need a truck to help me haul water.” And a convertible doesn’t do that, even the hatchback that I drive doesn’t do that. And so I gotta recalibrate things and like look at things as essential things for me when I’m back in the Navajo Nation. And I made the political statement, I have a farm, my late grandmother assigned it to me, I don’t know why she did that, but she did. And I’m like, okay, that’s a sign to step up and do things in the community to grow food. And so what essentially brought me to Utah was the work in land conservation around Bears Ears. So I did a lot of the narrative strategy around the Trump administration and like I recently visited Bears Ears and it made me feel good, like I helped restore that monument from a narrative standpoint.

But I bring that Bears Ears because it reintroduced me into this ancestral food that’s called the four corners potato. And now our communities know about the food source and you know, it is true that 80 to 85% of Indigenous people hold biodiversity and protect it. And I feel like that food source is such a source. And so through the work and through the alignment of the value of the work and you don’t have to be a part of a non-profit to do this kind of work, you can be sovereign in your own work, and what I’m trying to say is that that potato has drove me home into the Navajo Nation to revitalize farm work, growing your own food. And what I’ve learned logically over the common sense is, and I don’t know if this is the capitalistic Alastair is like coming up where he’s like, “okay, I am in the upper basin of the Colorado River, all the snow melt, and the water that comes down from the mountain that my people have historically relied on for agriculture, it just washes down, it goes into Chaco, Juan— it goes into San Juan River, it goes into the Colorado, it goes to Lake Powell, Lake Mead, and then Las Vegas is growing and then Vegas, LA’s growing and yeah, I want to be in Hollywood and live that life, you know, like I’m expendable, and those people in Hollywood are profiting, they have the Barbie and they have the convertible that I don’t have.

And so what I’ve learned is that I’m gonna make a political statement, I do water harvesting now, so I make sure that I harvest water, that way I have access to it. So I plant and I revitalize the land that has legacy of land disputes in my community and people fighting over it and they like, oh, I’m over here trying to heal those divides and make sure that I’m upstream of these water sources, so I’m going to try to access it the best way I can even though I don’t have like an engineering degree, but I’m kind of just-

Heather Tanana: Just call Leah.

Alastair Lee Bitsóí: Yeah, I’m just like, “oh, I think I’m gonna put mud here and then make sure that the water keeps the nutrients” And I feel like that’s one solution. And I feel like that inspiration has led to the work where Maria is doing in Black Mesa and the Navajo Nation where there’s exposure, and the people there are creative and I would say their organizing work influence my work now and like how to think outside and be creative. And right now I’m water harvesting in the farm and I feel like I’m excited to go home in two weeks just to plant and make sure hopefully we get a good monsoon season, but we got a good winter. And so like that’s hopeful to me.

Heather Tanana: Yeah. Yeah, awesome. Yeah, the only thing in my work too, we’ve had a lot of communities say, you know, because the youth are reclaiming their identity and wanting to live on their homelands, but the tribe is without that infrastructure, isn’t able to support a growing population. So that’s just an ongoing challenge there. Any other questions in the audience? Right here at the stripes?

Audience Member 2: Thank you. And thank you everybody for your voices and everything you’ve shared. I would like to ask for any of the panelists more about this idea of water use. This really came to mind when the stats on sort of the distribution of who uses water, like what industries, et cetera, use water. And it strikes me that to use water in different contexts has different types of consequences. Does the water flow off the farm line and back into the river or the aquifer for example? Or does it become polluted and now it’s in a settling pond? So I’m wondering if one or two folks can kind of speak to that and how that’s distributed across different uses.

Heather Tanana: Yeah. Leah, is that something you wanna kick us off with?

Leah Richardson-Oppliger: Yeah, absolutely. So we have, okay, how would I describe this? So there’s a difference between what you’re diverting and what you are, man, my mind is so blank on this word right now, but essentially we can divert a certain amount of water, but it can be completely, oh there we go, depletive. Wow, so sorry. It’s like what is this word? So depletion plays a role in what you’re talking about. And so let’s say that we are flood irrigating some land, there’s a certain amount of depletion that comes with that. It is not 100% depletive versus if we using are using water in a municipality, we would call that a hundred percent depletive. And what that means is that we used 100% of that water to do whatever we needed it to do. In the case of flood irrigation, a lot of that water is like, yes, the plant uses a certain amount, but some of that will return to the land, some of that will return to our aquifers, to our streams and rivers.

Whether or not it’s polluted, I think is a more in-depth question. Yes, that water oftentimes is polluted to a certain extent, but is it so polluted that the person who is downstream cannot use that water? You know, many would argue no. I mean they can still just use the runoff and use it on their land and that would be fine. But in terms of like, could we now drink that water? No, we could not drink water that is directly runoff from another farm. And so I guess to wrap up that question, depletion is what you’re thinking of and what is more depletive, industrial use or farming use? And depending on how we wanna discuss that, I would say that in general, industrial use would be more depletive because we’re using all of that water versus it coming back to our system. So does that answer your question? Awesome.