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Navajo Nation Wins Court Victory Over Access To Colorado River Water

Brian Witte/AP, file

The Navajo Nation this week won a major court victory in a lawsuit over access to the Colorado River. The long-running case claims the U.S. government hasn’t lived up to its obligation to provide water for the tribe. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.

In 2003, the Navajo Nation sued the U.S. Interior Department. It claimed the agency was in breach of the federal government’s trust obligation to secure and protect Colorado River water needed by the tribe.

The U.S. District Court in Arizona, however, dismissed the case, saying the U.S. hadn’t waived its sovereign immunity – a doctrine that says the federal government can’t be sued without its consent.

But the Navajo Nation appealed and this week the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that past treaties obligated the U.S. to protect the tribe’s water resources. The decision sends the lawsuit back to the district court.

“Water resources are becoming a greater concern for the southwest portion of the United States," said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a press release. "Over 150 years after the signing of the Treaty of 1868 between the Navajo people and the United States, we are still having to fight for water allocations.

Navajo Attorney General Doreen McPaul says it’s a significant win for the tribe, and that a lack of water contributed to the COVID-19 pandemic’s heavy toll on the reservation.

It’s the second recent court victory for Navajo Nation water rights. Last month, all challenges were dropped from a settlement over the tribe’s access to the San Juan River.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.
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