Water and Tribes in the Colorado River Basin


At the request of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the Center is working with the Ten Tribes Partnership and the Intertribal Council of Arizona to advance the interests of tribes in land and water in the Colorado River basin.

Twenty-nine federally recognized tribes in the basin depend on the waters of the Colorado River and its tributaries for a variety of purposes, including cultural and religious activities, domestic, irrigation, commercial, municipal and industrial, power generation, recreation, instream flows, wildlife, and habitat restoration. These tribes hold legal rights to a significant amount of water, many of which are the most senior in the basin. Combined, the tribes hold rights to roughly 20 percent (or 2.9 million-acre feet) of the water in the Colorado River basin. Sixteen tribes have “settled” their reserved water rights claims, and the reserved water rights of the other thirteen tribes are pending.

With the oldest claims to water in the basin, the tribes are in a position to play a significant role in balancing water demand and supply and otherwise shaping the future of the region. The demand for water in the basin currently exceeds available water in any given year. This structural imbalance is further complicated by chronic drought and the uncertainty of impacts from climate change. 

While the use of water in the basin is governed by the “Law of the River” – a complex system of federal and state laws and regulations, court decrees, international compacts and treaties, and multiple state and federal contracts and agreements that articulate water rights and otherwise establish the legal and institutional framework for managing water in the Colorado River Basin – the ongoing structural imbalance has fostered some innovative and cooperative arrangements among lower and upper basin water users.

In response to this challenging set of issues, the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy, a program of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, invited the Center to help clarify the needs and interests of tribes in the basin, and to help create an agenda that benefits the tribes and the entire basin.

For more information, see:

Map of the Colorado River Basin

Map of Tribes in the Colorado River Basin

Gathering of Tribes and Others at 2017 CRWUA: Sense of the Meeting


For more information, please contact Matt McKinney.