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The Supreme Court rules against the Navajo Nation in Colorado River case

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court says the federal government can avoid helping the Navajo Nation secure water from the Colorado River. It's part of a ruling by the justices against the tribe in a decadeslong dispute. Reporter Luke Runyon with member station KUNC has more.

LUKE RUNYON, BYLINE: The facts in Arizona v. The Navajo Nation reach back as far as 1868. That's when a peace treaty created the tribe's reservation, an arid reach of the Southwest that spans across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It also promised water - enough to sustain life and allow for farming and ranching. The tribe has been seeking assistance and actually using the water they're legally entitled to. The government said they didn't have to help, and in a 5-to-4 majority opinion, the Supreme Court agreed and said federal officials were under no obligation to plan for the tribe's future water needs. During the oral arguments this past spring, the Navajo Nation's lawyer, Shay Dvoretzky, framed the dispute as one more broken promise in a long history of them - something Native American tribes have become all too accustomed to.

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SHAY DVORETZKY: The United States thinks that it alone decides whether it has made good on its promises. But that's not how promises work. A promise is a solemn duty, and the United States' duty is to see that the Nation has the water it needs and the United States promised.

RUNYON: More than a third of those living on the reservation currently lack clean water access in their homes. Often the groundwater is too salty to drink or laden with uranium and arsenic, which is why the tribe has been trying to find new sources like the Colorado River. Heather Tanana, a Navajo citizen and University of Utah law professor, says much of the tribe's water supply challenges stem from the decision to force Navajo people off their land more than 150 years ago.

HEATHER TANANA: You can't ignore that history and the federal government's involvement in the actions that they did or did not take that created the conditions Navajo is experiencing now.

RUNYON: In a statement, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren called the decision disappointing and said he remained undeterred in securing the tribe's water in the Lower Colorado River Basin.

For NPR News, I'm Luke Runyon in Grand Junction, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As KUNC’s reporter covering the Colorado River Basin, I dig into stories that show how water issues can both unite and divide communities throughout the Western U.S. I produce feature stories for KUNC and a network of public media stations in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada.
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