The Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation on Thursday in a dispute involving water from the drought-stricken Colorado River.
States that draw water from the river — Arizona, Nevada and Colorado — and water districts in California that are also involved in the case had urged the court to decide for them, which the justices did in a 5-4 ruling. Colorado had argued that siding with the Navajo Nation would undermine existing agreements and disrupt the management of the river.
The Biden administration had said that if the court were to come down in favor of the Navajo Nation, the federal government could face lawsuits from many other tribes.
Lawyers for the Navajo Nation had characterized the tribe’s request as modest, saying they simply were seeking an assessment of the tribe’s water needs and a plan to meet them.
The Colorado River in the upper River Basin is pictured in Lees Ferry, Ariz., on May 29, 2021. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
But, Kavanaugh said, “In light of the treaty’s text and history, we conclude that the treaty does not require the United States to take those affirmative steps.”
Kavanaugh acknowledged that water issues are difficult ones.
“Where do the Navajo go from here?” he wrote. “To date, their efforts to find out what water rights the United States holds for them have produced an experience familiar to any American who has spent time at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Navajo have waited patiently for someone, anyone, to help them, only to be told (repeatedly) that they have been standing in the wrong line and must try another.”
Gorsuch said one “silver lining” of the case may be that his colleagues in the majority recognized that the tribe may still be able to “assert the interests they claim in water rights litigation, including by seeking to intervene in cases that affect their claimed interests.”
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Raynelle Hoskie attaches a hose to a water pump to fill tanks in her truck outside a tribal office on the Navajo reservation in Tuba City, Ariz., on April 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Phillip Yazzie waits for a water drum in the back of his pickup truck to be filled in Teesto, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation, on Feb. 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)
During arguments in the case in March, Justice Samuel Alito pointed out that the Navajo Nation’s original reservation was hundreds of miles away from the section of the Colorado River it now seeks water from.
Today, the Colorado River flows along what is now the northwestern border of the tribe’s reservation, which extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona. Two of the river’s tributaries, the San Juan River and the Little Colorado River, also pass alongside and through the reservation. Still, one-third of the some 175,000 people who live on the reservation, the largest in the country, do not have running water in their homes.