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Paul Tsosie appointed as the 1st tribal voice on Utah’s Colorado River Authority board

FILE - Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz.
Ross D. Franklin
AP, file
FILE - Low water levels at Wahweap Bay at Lake Powell along the Upper Colorado River Basin are shown Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Utah and Arizona border at Wahweap, Ariz.

Paul Tsosie was recently appointed to Utah’s Colorado River Authority board as the new seat for indigenous tribes representation.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox appointed Tsosie to the newly-created position on Sept. 20, saying he will bring perspective on policies and knowledge of water law. Though Tsosie is a member of the Navajo Nation, he does not legally represent any tribal nation or government.

“I don't represent any of the tribes affected by the Colorado River. But I will make sure that the tribal voice is heard when necessary,” Tsosie said.

For 100 years, the Colorado River Compact has governed the river water’s usage across connecting states. However, when it was created in 1922, it left out the tribes and Mexico. Native Americans have never had a place at the table to determine their share of the water since the compact.

This is the first appointment of a board seat for inclusion and representation of the tribes since that time, University of Utah Political Science Professor Emeritus Dan McCool said.

And leaving out the tribes in the agreement was just the beginning. McCool’s study of the compact has found that it has many fallacies when it comes to equal representation.

“Native Americans were not just left out of allocations in the compact. They were either ignored or omitted or trivialized or insulted by all the subsequent legislation in regard to development at the Colorado River Basin,” McCool said.

The new position will allow Tsosie to speak during both board meetings and water law policy discussions and use his experience to ensure the tribes are considered.

“I will make sure that the Colorado River Authority knows that Indian tribal interests are not rooted in state law, but they are rooted in the United States Constitution under the treaty clause, which is the supreme law of the land, and that there are different rules that apply,” Tsosie said.

McCool said that the issue of representation for tribal water rights and usage is only now popping up because tribes have gone to court over policies omitting them. In recent years, tribes have been getting more attention because of the legal action they’ve taken over water policies.

With the 20-year megadrought forcing the West to look at heavier water conservation methods, the tribes are speaking out about representation in the state's authority boards. The Ute Tribe is in the middle of a water settlement since they don't have quantifiable water policies despite the fact that they've been using the river's water for years.

With increased conservation efforts and the water supply diminishing, policymakers in Utah are looking to work together with the tribes on solutions.

“We didn't really talk to Native Americans until it was time to share the pain,” McCool said.

University of Utah Associate Professor of History Greg Smoak said the settlement process between states and tribes to determine water rights and allocation takes years. With Tsosie appointed, Utah might be able to find more common ground without lengthy settlements.

“Having another mechanism to actually bring Native people to the table for these types of discussions before you go through that whole Senate process would be a welcome thing. Hopefully, this will be followed by other states or there will be more authority for tribes to be involved in these types of things before you get into that settlement process,” Smoak said.

Tsosie may not speak directly for the tribes from a legal perspective, but he hopes to use his roots to bring inclusion to water law discussions. His role will also require him to intervene when the board will need to consult the tribes and create a bridge between the two entities.

In past legal struggles, “the United States Supreme Court has described states as the deadliest enemy of tribes,” Tsosie said. He hopes his position leads to fixing that.

“Hopefully (this) starts down the path of alleviating that and making sure that there's a partnership, making sure that there's a process, that the tribal voice is heard.”

Elle Cabrera is a former KUER reporter
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