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As the Colorado River dries, tribes see indigenous water management as essential

 Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan stands in front of a farm near the San Xavier del Bac Mission.
Megan Myscofski
Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan stands in front of a farm near the San Xavier del Bac Mission.

Native people have lived in the Southwestern U.S. for millennia and have traditional ways to manage water that have worked for them. When settlers arrived, they upended that system. Now, tribes in the Colorado River Basin are trying to elevate indigneous approaches to water management.

University of Arizona doctoral candidate Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan is finishing a dissertation on the history of land and water in the San Xavier District, part of the Tohono O’odham Nation, just south of Tucson.

Some of her research has taken her to the Santa Cruz River. On a quiet stretch tall trees, made archways and provided shade from the sun.

Some elders in the community, like Ramon-Sauberan’s grandma, remember coming to play in the water here as kids.

“I can't even fathom how she's like,’Yeah, we used to play in it. And it had all these lush trees,’” Ramon-Sauberan said.

It’s a restoration project where they brought water back only recently.

The Tohono O’odham and their ancestors have farmed in this region for millennia and had an extensive and complex canal system to do it.

But when settlers arrived, they brought an approach to water management better suited to the greener places they’d come from. They built large reservoirs and cut deep ditches that monsoons made even deeper.

“Yes, they introduced new things to us, like cattle and horses and metal tools. But again, we knew what grew here. We knew how to live off of the land,” Ramon-Sauberan said.

Over time, this section of the Santa Cruz river dried up, and the tribe’s farms suffered.

It took a lawsuit and federal legislation in the 1970s and 1980s to settle the Tohono O’odham Nation’s claim to water, and eventually deliver Colorado River water here to make up for what the tribe lost.

“We were pretty much making a stance and saying what you did is not right, and we want you to understand that, and we want you to pay for the damages and the loss that you have caused us,” Ramon-Sauberan said.

They use Colorado River water to recharge the aquifer, which they in turn use to run water around the restoration site.

Ramon-Sauberan said it wasn’t until just a few years ago that she got to see water flow here again, like what her grandma had described.

Western tribes like the Tohono O’odham have always known how to manage scarce water supplies, but the broader culture, and even the federal government, is starting to see the value of traditional ecological knowledge in all kinds of natural resource issues.

“I love these stories because I mean, it's the magic of water,” Daryl Vigil said. He is a co-facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, a group that works to make sure tribes like the Tohono O’odham are represented when future decisions are made about the Colorado River. Some of Vigil’s work receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds a portion of Colorado River coverage at KUNC.

The 100-year-old Colorado River Compact, which parceled out rights to the water to the seven states that rely on it, explicitly left out tribes.

Vigil said rectifying that injustice is crucial, not just to restore ecosystems and farmland, like the Tohono O’odham have done, but to get clean water to those who don’t have it.

“It's a basic right as a citizen in this country,” he said. “Yet 70 to 80,000 Navajos still haul water on a daily basis.”

He said tribes should be allowed the luxury of putting water rights to use that the government has allowed others.

“If a tribe utilizes and develops its water rights, it's usually for something that's benefiting, you know, a whole lot more than what we think it's benefiting,” Vigil said.

That includes bringing water back to places where it’d stopped flowing, like the spot on the Santa Cruz river where Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan is studying land and water rights.

“Once I got older, I could make those connections, and in a sense, I put myself in those stories that my grandma was telling,” she said.

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by Arizona Public Media, distributed by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. You can hear more about this story and other Southwestern water issues on the AZPM podcastTapped.

Copyright 2022 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Megan Myscofski
Megan is a student reporter.