Supreme Court to weigh Navajo Nation water rights fight in Arizona

The Colorado River cuts through Marble Canyon in the Navajo Nation

MARBLE CANYON, AZ. – DEC 24, 2021.The Colorado River cuts through Marle Canyon in the Navajo Nation en route to the Grand Canyon. This segment of the river joins two vast reservors: Lake Powell in Utah and Lake Mead in Nevada. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

Supreme Court to weigh Navajo Nation water rights fight in Arizona

David G. Savage

March 20, 2023

The Supreme Court will hear a major water rights dispute from Arizona on Monday to decide whether the federal government has broken its promises to the Navajo Nation for more than 150 years.

Nearly a third of the Navajo households do not have running water and must rely on water that is trucked in.

And for that, t T


y Navajo Nation b

lames the U.S. government for having breached its duty of trust that came with

an the treaty in


treaty thatwhich

established their reservation in what is now



corner of

Arizona and smaller


of south


ern Utah and north


ern New Mexico.

That treaty “promised both land and water sufficient for the Navajos to return to a permanent home in their ancestral territory,”

attorneys for the Navajo Nationtheirattorneys

told the court. “Broken promises. The Nation is still waiting for the water it needs.”


The case comes before the justices

after during an era of drought in the West and

100 years

after litigation over execution of

the Colorado River

Compact as well as high court decrees

that divided




among seven

states including California, Arizona and Nevada.

It also comes in an era of drought in the West.

At issue now is whether the Navajo

s Nation

can press ahead with a lawsuit that seeks a federal plan to supply

its residents’their

unmet need for water.

They The Navajo Nation

won a preliminary victory in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2021, which said


had a claim for breach of trust, noting


the 1868 treaty referred to agriculture.

“The Nation’s right to farm reservation lands … gives rise to an implied right to the water necessary to do so,” the appeals court said. However, it stopped short of deciding whether this included “rights to the mainstream of the Colorado River or any other specific water sources.”

But in the fall,


Supreme Court agreed to hear appeals from both


Interior Department and Arizona that seek to toss out the 9th Circuit’s decision.

U.S. Solicitor Gen.


Elizabeth B. Prelogar argued the 1868 treaty said nothing about water and established no specific duties for the government related to water. Moreover, the Navajo

s Nation hashave

been given water rights from two tributaries of the Colorado River, including San Juan River in Utah, she said.

Lawyers for Arizona, joined by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, said the high court’s decrees have allocated the waters from the lower Colorado River, and it is too late for lawsuits that seek new rights to the same water.

The cases are Arizona vs. Navajo Nation and Department of Interior vs. Navajo Nation.