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Colorado Basin Tribes Without Water Rights – The Durango Herald

Garnett Querta wipes sweat from his head while carrying water on the Hualapai Reservation Aug. 15, near Peach Springs, Arizona. Water drawn from the ground here will be piped dozens of miles through the rugged landscape to serve the roughly 700,000 tourists a year who visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Reservation in northwestern Arizona – an operation that is the main source of income for the tribe. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Garnett Querta puts on his work gloves as he moves the big truck he’s driving to the park. Within seconds, he uncoils a fire hose and opens a fire hydrant, sending water flowing into one of the plastic tanks on the truck bed.

His timer is set to 5 minutes, 20 seconds – when the tank will be full and he will turn to second.

Water drawn from the ground here will be piped dozens of miles through rugged landscape to serve the roughly 700,000 tourists a year who visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Reservation in northwestern Arizona – an operation that is the main source of income for the tribe.

Although the Colorado River borders more than 100 miles of Hualapai land in the canyon, the tribe cannot turn to it as a source of water. Likewise, a dozen tribes across the Colorado River basin have yet to fully secure access to the river. Now that the river is shrinking due to overuse, drought and human-caused climate change, the tribes want the federal government to ensure their interests are protected.

The Hualapai Tribe has a water settlement in Congress that comes with $180 million for infrastructure. Still, it could be years before a pipeline is built and water flows from the river to the main town of Peach Springs or the tribe’s tourist hub in Grand Canyon West.

“It was the best of a bad deal,” said Phil Wisely, the tribe’s utility manager. “And the thing is, I don’t think we could get a better deal, especially now.”

The Colorado River can no longer support the 40 million people of the American West who depended on it, plus a $15 billion agricultural industry. The US Bureau of Reclamation recently ordered deeper water supply cuts and asked seven states to find ways to conserve more.

Garnett Querta checks a tank on his tank truck on the Hualapai Reservation on August 15 in Peach Springs, Ariz. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

The tribes did not get a share of the river when the states agreed to divide it and signed the Colorado River Compact in 1922.

Unlike other water users, tribes do not lose access to water when they are not using it. A 1908 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as the Winters Doctrine states that tribes have the right to enough water to establish a permanent homeland. Often, tribes give up potentially huge water claims in exchange for an assured supply and federal funding to deliver it.

According to the Water & Tribes Initiative, tribal water rights – when fully resolved – could account for around a quarter of the river’s historic flows.

On the Ute Indian Tribe reservation east of Salt Lake City, a water settlement has been delayed for decades because everyone can no longer agree on how much the tribe should receive.

Tribal leaders say they are tired of pressuring the federal government to protect its interests. They argue that the way water was allocated in Utah was unfair, although Utah state officials disagree.

“Until you start tackling inequality or injustice, you can never really have momentum,” said Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the Ute Business Committee.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the Department of the Interior did not specify how tribal water rights, which are federal rights, would be protected as the river’s flow declines. He said he works with tribes affected by drought.

Back on the Hualapai reservation, the tribe has been searching for groundwater for years.

Querta’s job is drudgery, but he’s well suited for it – analytical, fast-paced and goal-oriented.

The truck takes a beating on gravel and dirt road on multiple 30+ mile round trips most days. Side mirrors and rear windows have come off and are held in place with red tape. Major truck repairs or illness can put it out of service.

COVID-19 sidelined Querta for two weeks last year without a replacement.

“I didn’t mind because I didn’t want anyone messing up my truck or my tanks,” Querta said. “I take care of this truck as if it were mine.”

The water it draws is sent through a pipeline just outside of Peach Springs to Grand Canyon West. Revenues from tourism finance programs for the elderly, public works, the cultural center and other services. The main tourist attraction is the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass bridge overlooking the Colorado River 4,000 feet below.

People walk through the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the Hualapai Reservation August 16 in northwestern Arizona. About 700,000 tourists a year visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Reservation in northwestern Arizona – an operation that is the tribe’s main source of income. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

A restaurant overlooking the canyon operates with water conservation in mind – waterless urinals, faucets with sensors, bottled water and food served in disposable containers. Those practices will remain even if Hualapai gets water from the Colorado River, operations manager Alvaro Cobia-Ruesga said.

The Hualapai Tribe has long planned to expand Grand Canyon West with a store, fire and police station, housing and an elementary school to serve tribesmen who now take a shuttle ride of up to five hours one way -daily return from Peach Springs and surrounding communities to their work there. .

But without a safe water source for Grand Canyon West, that won’t happen, Tribal Chairman Damon Clarke said.

“One of the most important things with our establishment is having hope for the future and getting it not for us right now, but for generations to come,” he said.

People eat at a restaurant overlooking the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the Hualapai Reservation August 16 in northwestern Arizona. About 700,000 tourists a year visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Reservation in northwestern Arizona – an operation that is the tribe’s main source of income. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Rancher Clay Bravo leans against his truck as his pet dog Whiskey stands on the roof of the Hualapai Reservation August 16 in northwestern Arizona. Although the Colorado River runs over 100 miles through the Hualapai lands, the tribe cannot draw from it. Bravo said the tribe should wait for a settlement, negotiate a better deal and develop groundwater resources at the same time. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Garnett Querta fills his truck with water from a fire hydrant on the Hualapai Reservation August 15 in Peach Springs, Arizona. Water drawn from the ground here will be channeled dozens of miles through the rugged landscape to serve the roughly 700,000 tourists a year who visit the Grand Canyon on the Hualapai Reservation in northwestern Arizona. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Garnett Querta rinses out a flask after checking water carried on his truck on the Hualapai Reservation on August 15 near Peach Springs, Ariz. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Garnett Querta attaches a water hose to his truck on the Hualapai Reservation August 15 in Peach Springs, Arizona. The grip tape helps prevent the mirror from falling off when navigating dirt roads while carrying water. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Rancher Clay Bravo leans against his truck on the Hualapai Reservation August 16 in northwestern Arizona. Although the Colorado River runs over 100 miles through the Hualapai lands, the tribe cannot draw from it. Bravo said the tribe should wait for a settlement, negotiate a better deal and develop groundwater resources at the same time. (John Locher/Associated Press)

John Locher

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion