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Issues USA: Native American Reservations

Water Scarcity on Native American Reservations

A Brief by Brigitte Keen

As early as the 19 century, Native Americans have suffered from the burden of water scarcity. When American farmers disrupted the irrigation and agricultural system of the Southwestern Pima tribe, the Pima could no longer depend on their natural resources for survival. This disruption resulted in a progressive decline in the socioeconomic status of the Pima. Side effects of this decline included poverty, and extreme hunger.

Currently, there are 326 reservations in America, covering 18.6 million acres of land. This population depends on the maintenance and success of its natural habitat, making severe weather a detrimental factor to the livelihood of Native Americans. The EPA suggests that droughts, heat waves and floods caused by climate change, have resulted in the loss of aquatic life, such as, salmon and trout.

Approximately half of the land located in the West are represented by the US government, and are thereby responsible for the protection of federally mandated “Water Rights”. These rights cover the essential water needs for Native American Reservations, and National Parks. Though the government is the main fiduciary, responsible for the enforcement of western water rights in the United States, some say additional enforcement is required. Many water rights claims go unresolved, causing the need for enhanced enforcement as well as accessible funding.

Moreover, despite severe droughts in the western region, Nestlé has continued to drain a predicted 244 million gallons per year from the state of California. In addition to selling various food products, Nestlé manufactures and sells bottled water. The primary factory of which sits on the reservation belonging to the Morongo Band of Mission Indians. This controversial syphoning of water has activists up in arms demanding answers. However, these answers have been kept out of the public eye in recent years. In fact, since 2010, Nestlé has ceased the submission of their annual ground water extraction reports. With the lack of access to water, many southwestern tribes are left in danger of running dry. Fortunately, in 2014, the EPA agreed to provide 43 million dollars to counteract the harmful effects of climate change to the southwestern tribal communities. With continued enforcement of water rights and financial support, the Native American tribes can attain an improved quality of life.

Navajo Reservations Water Issues

by Courtney Johnston

There are Navajo communities throughout the Southwest, particularly in Arizona and Utah and even New Mexico. There are many communities of people who live there with their families who have lived there for several generations.

In this area, “electricity and running water [are] scarce in mostly rural areas” (Millman, 2017). However, the people there are used to not having running water and no electricity, in fact many of them say that they have lived this way since they were young (Millman, 2017).

Residents say that they are used to waiting for up to two hours to get clean water from the wells and nearby water sources (Millman, 2017). To try and find a solution to this problem the Navajo Water Project was created and it aims to provide running water to all residents in the communities (Millman, 2017). “George McGraw, founder of the Navajo Water Project, said the lack state of water access is unacceptable” (Millman, 2017).

The project wants to help change the future of access of water to these residents by making it easier to access the water more freely. “Jason John, the water-management official, said the approach to water access is affected by some members’ desire to maintain the tribe’s culture and identity” (Millman, 2017).

Protecting the communities and their culture is important to not only them, but to others as well. The Project wants to help the communities by giving them water, but also make sure that their way of life does not just change dramatically. This Project costs a lot of money and they need the help of the tribal government, as well as the federal government (Millman, 2017).

This project is ongoing and continues to develop solutions to help provide easy water access to the Navajo Nation. For more information click on this link to learn more about the Navajo Water Project

Millam, E. (My 20, 2017). Navajo Nation Reservation in Need of Running Water.

Retrieved from

Navajo Water Project (2017). About the Project. Retrieved from


The Laws of Water

By Jason Zheng

Whenever there is water, there is always inequality. The historical Californian drought greatly separated the rich and the poor, “we’re not all equal when it comes to water”—courtesy of The Washington Post. To further extend how water contribute to inequality we will also have to examine a going conflict of water ways before this historical drought became to be. In this article, Native American reservations in California will be used to analyze to determine just how strict the laws of water are even if the land was once originally populous with Native Americans.

Two the landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases that established the rights of tribal waters, Winters v. United States, 207 U.S. 564 (1908) and United States v. Rio Grande Dam & Irrigation Co., 174 U.S. 690 (1899). These cases established principles regarding to water rights, however the two main key principles are: 1) that federal reserved lands have a right to use sufficient water to fulfill their needs of the reservation and 2) water rights cannot be destroyed by state water laws nor water users acting in behalf with state law.

The evaluation of reservation water rights requires two factors—the date on which the land became federally reserved and the amount of water that is needed to fulfill the general purpose for which the land was federally reserved. This is called the Prior Appropriation Law or “first in time, first in right”.

Water rights under the federal laws is quite different compared to rights under the state laws. Federal reserved rights do not expire if the water is not used. Thus tribes have the abilities to use as much water as they please with good judgment. However, the U.S. Supreme Court created a limit on the amount of water reservations are allow to use, but it is hard to place a limit on water consumption because the tribe’s individual history plays a role on defining their water rights. As a state, California would also need to conduct reviews of the tribe’s history and water consumption in order to conclude just how much water is needed to stratify all the tribes. However, the state of California has not completed reviews of the major tribes.

The California’s water allocation plan does not discuss tribal water rights because the amount of water that each tribes need is still unclear. For Native American reservations in California and the United States, there should be a series of historical records or reviews to propose to deduce an accurate amount of water required for the reservations. This would be a lengthy and budget consuming task, however it would give the state and federal government a better sense of where the water is going and how they can water rights. 

The Need For Water Increases

During The Pandemic

For The Navajo Nation

By: Briana Dawson

The water crisis that many Native American reservations experience is not new. In fact, when the Navajo people were placed on the reservations, they were giving the driest portion of their land to live on. This dates back to the “late 19th and early 20th century (Gold & Shakespeare, 2020)”, but the problem still remains. However, in times of a pandemic like COVID-19, the importance of water is even more of a necessity. Ten gallons of water is not enough to survive, especially when a person is sick. With inadequate amounts of water, the number of COVID-19 cases will continue to increase throughout the reservation. Reports state that out of 10,300 cases, 555 have died from COVID-19 (Gold & Shakespeare, 2020). This article will discuss suggestions on how to fix this problem.

According to, some suggestions include “delivering water disinfectant tablets, establishing community-driven collectives to test water sources/deliver households, and getting the Navajo Nation federal support to meet public health standards and ensure all households have access to water (Gold & Shakespeare, 2020).” Furthermore, the Navajo people have been suffering for more than a hundred years from droughts, federal policies, and poverty (Redsteer et. al., 2010). It will take a community to fix this problem.


Gold, A., & Shakesprere, J. (2020, September 29). Four Ways to Improve Water Access in Navajo Nation during COVID-19. Urban Institute.

Redsteer, M., Kelley, K., Francis, H., & Block, D. (2010). Disaster risk assessment case study: recent drought on the Navajo Nation, southwest United States. Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction.

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