November 10, 2011--Federal settlements give Colorado tribes a share of water rights (Denver Post)

Water has filled a massive new reservoir to the brim — the federal government's first major project in 15 years that could help slake the arid West's thirsts. But the $513 million Nighthorse reservoir in south west Colorado will not supply any of the dozens of sprawling Western cities seeking water. Instead, the 123,541 acre-feet of water stored here — more than Denver's Cheesman and Gross reservoirs combined — belongs mostly to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes. The project reflects a quiet but substantial shift of control over a crucial resource as the federal government tries to turn a new page with tribes. Six recent water settlements have forced the government to commit $2.04 billion for dam, pipeline and reservoir projects — giving sovereign tribes from Montana to New Mexico control over 1.5 million acre-feet of new water each year. Tribes have used lawsuits and hard bargaining to assert water rights. Now, with many Western rivers already over-subscribed, tribes are in a position to play a greater role in development. Obama administration legal teams are negotiating 16 additional settlements. There's no better choice, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, inspecting the Nighthorse reservoir on a recent aerial swing. Leaving tribal claims unsettled "could essentially turn all the economics that people rely on, in terms of water supply, on its head," Salazar said. Beyond that, he said, "this is a justice issue."

Since 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that tribes relocated to reservations in the 19th century are entitled to enough water to live on those lands. Only 29 of the nation's 565 tribes have had claims settled. Future settlements could exhaust much of the remaining unallocated water. "The reality of water in most rivers in America, including the Colorado and Rio Grande, which are so important to Colorado, is that there's not enough water to do everything that people want to do. We're not going to create any more water supply," said Salazar, a lawyer whose prior work as a U.S. Senator, state attorney general and natural resources director drew him into the issue. "Until (tribal claims for water) get quantified, there's no certainty" for how much water will be available, Salazar said. 

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