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Who gets a say in the Colorado River's water supply


The podcast Parched from Colorado Public Radio looks at the Colorado River - a lifeline for communities across the western U.S. - and the people who have ideas to save it. Indigenous tribes have lived within the water's flow for thousands of years, but they've been shut out of decision-making about the Colorado River. In today's episode, we traveled to the Jicarilla Apache Reservation to learn what's meant for tribes. You're going to hear from both the host of Parched, Michael Elizabeth Sakas, and Taylar Dawn Stagner, an Indigenous affairs reporter from Wyoming. Taylar picks up the story.


TAYLAR DAWN STAGNER, BYLINE: I want to introduce you to Daryl Vigil.

DARYL VIGIL: I grew up to toddler age mostly in Zia and Jemez Pueblo, which are around the Albuquerque area.

STAGNER: Daryl has a touch of gray in his short, dark hair and a big smile. He's an avid bike rider and wears a puffy black jacket to stay warm in the snowy winters in northern New Mexico. He's a member of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

VIGIL: Zia is the Sun Symbol people, and that's where my mother is from. And then Jemez Walatowa is where - my dad is half Jemez and half Jicarilla. And so the first two languages that I spoke were Towa and Keresan and was much - absolutely a little pueblo boy, you know, not only in language, but how I was raised.

STAGNER: As Daryl grew up, he was taught a spiritual respect for water.

VIGIL: That's the level of reverence you give that stream or that river because our ancestors go back into that, and they come from that as well. And then inside the kivas, taking part in ceremony, the medicine men and the spiritual people at every occasion making medicine water, blessing the water and blessing the community through the water.

STAGNER: For thousands of years, many Indigenous people moved with the river, adapted to it, responded to it. Some of those people are Daryl's ancestors. On his Pueblo side, they celebrate and honor how the seasons and rivers change.

VIGIL: The dances all revolved around the cyclical nature of the environment and, most importantly, rain and snow, in terms of what it meant to our existence. The rattle and the corn dance, you know, is like rain falling, and the bells emulate thunder and those kind of things. That was absolutely embedded in me.

STAGNER: The Jicarilla Apache revere rivers. The Colorado was kept whole for millions of years. It flowed from its start high in the Rocky Mountains to the once vast acres of wetlands in Mexico and, eventually, to the ocean. And it supported Native people, plants and animals along the way. But all of that ended as Europeans started to make their way West. For them to grow farms and raise cattle, the river needed to be controlled. The river needed to behave.


STAGNER: This is the West Daryl was born into in the 1960s. He grew up on three different reservations. Colonizers had confined his people to these lands. Daryl eventually started working for the family's hotel business, and later he became the head of the tribe's casino and gaming enterprise. He says his self-worth and identity got wrapped up in how much money he could make, and then he was fired.

VIGIL: And to this day, you know, I say that that was the best thing that my tribe ever did for me.

STAGNER: Because he got a new job and a new mission as the tribe's water administrator.

VIGIL: By being hired 12, 13 years ago as the tribe's water administrator absolutely was creator-driven from the context that, you know, I was not supposed to be on that path. This is going to be your path now. I didn't jump in wholeheartedly to begin with because this wasn't my pathway to millions. You know, it became real apparent early on that this was something that was very, very important, and I didn't have a whole lot of idea about, you know, how important that would be.

STAGNER: It became Daryl's responsibility to make sure his tribe has access to Colorado River water - the river that, for thousands of years, was just whole - swelling with the rain, shrinking in the sun, in complete union with the world around it. That's not how it works today. Instead, the river is carved into pieces by gigantic dams. As reservoirs filled with water, Daryl's tribe and the dozens of others in the Colorado River Basin no longer had the same access to Colorado River water as they once did.


MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, BYLINE: That's why I've made this trip to the Colorado River in Arizona, because when this river got carved up, this quiet spot is where that began. I'm just downstream of one of those gigantic dams and reservoirs - Lake Powell, the second biggest in the country. Here, people are putting on sunscreen and gearing up to float down the river and into the Grand Canyon.

The water is crystal clear. The river is really wide here, and we're just surrounded by these towering red canyon cliff walls. Oh, wow. Just off in the distance, there's a little herd of bighorn sheep. And then right here, what I'm looking at right now are some historic old stone buildings.


SAKAS: These stone buildings are ruins now - missing roofs, there's grass growing up from the floor and walls have fallen and crumbled. They were built by Latter-day Saints. Those settlers turned this spot into a river ferry - a place to move people, supplies, livestock and anything else they needed across the water. This place was important to their mission to spread across the Southwest and to colonize the area with farmland, communities and their religion. They were some of the first white colonizers here. This place is now called Lees Ferry after John Lee, a guy who helped get people over the river. And now John Lee's great-great-grandson's job is to study the Colorado River.

BRAD UDALL: My name is Brad Udall. I have the delightful title of senior water and climate research scientist and scholar at Colorado State University's Colorado Water Center. I had always been told that John D. Lee was my great-great-grandfather. It got me really interested in Lee and some of the Colorado River history.

SAKAS: That curiosity turned into a full-on love for the river after Brad's first boating trip down the Grand Canyon. He was 15 years old, and the trip started at Lees Ferry. Brad became a river raft guide a few years later.

UDALL: I have two years of my life in the bottom of the Grand Canyon rowing boats. There are stupendous views, beautiful sunsets and sunrises. There's geology to die for with rocks that are, you know, a billion and a half years old in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. So there's a whole story about life on earth, about earth before life, even.

SAKAS: All these river trips mean Brad has spent a lot of time at the place where his great-great-grandfather helped move Latter-day Saints deeper into the Southwest as they fled religious persecution.

UDALL: In order to have agriculture in the American West, you had to have reliable water supplies. The problem is, in the American Southwest especially, you do not have reliable water supplies. You have very large changes from year to year and rainfall and snowfall, and you have little tiny rivers compared to the East Coast.

SAKAS: Brad's family helped establish communities in parts of the country that some had deemed unlivable, and they did it by diverting Colorado River water. Their success led to more Americans moving out West, which meant they needed to use more and more of the river. They built homes and fields and raised cattle, and they needed their water to be reliable. This is what ushered in the era of gigantic dams. Farmers needed big reservoirs to keep water in the bank during droughts.

UDALL: Embedded in the American psyche, starting around the turn of the 20th century, was this idea that the federal government had to get involved in these large-scale irrigation projects to build a stable economy in the American West.

SAKAS: Here's where the river gets divvied up. The American Southwest states had to figure out how to share this water. So in the early 1920s, the states chopped the Colorado River in half. After millions of years, the river was whole no more - instead, carved up. Half of the river's flows would go to Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah; the other half would be for Nevada, Arizona and California. Eventually, Mexico was added to that list. Every single drop of the Colorado River now had someone's name on it. And where was the river divided?

UDALL: You know, until 1922, Lees Ferry was really nowhere. I mean, it was just a remote outpost on the Colorado River. But in 1922, the Colorado River Compact commissioners picked the spot, Lees Ferry, to be that dividing line.

SAKAS: Lees Ferry, this peaceful spot in middle-of-nowhere northern Arizona by the Grand Canyon, where boaters launch and sheep roam, this place that mostly only river rafters know about - that's the dividing line.

STAGNER: It takes audacity to chop a river in half. This 1922 compact to divide up the river also didn't include 30 different Indigenous tribes who also needed this water to survive the hot and dry West. They didn't get a share. Like the reservation system, Western water law was designed to eradicate Indigenous people and culture. It moved that water to colonized farmland and states, which got busy building massive water projects they needed to support their dreams of big, prosperous cities.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is the story of Hoover Dam, one of America's seven modern civil engineering wonders. Here is where man conquered this mighty river, placing a concrete yoke about its neck to harness its tremendous water and power resources.

STAGNER: A concrete yoke, or collar, around the neck of the Colorado River. The language in this U.S. government film from the 1980s is disturbing. I got images of chattel slavery. That's how white settlers saw the river - as a thing to take control of for the benefit of American colonization. That's a totally opposite view of how Daryl and his tribe see the river.

VIGIL: I laugh because those dam dreams - like, you know, that was the thought. We'll build these gargantuan facilities. We're going to tame nature. We're going to show it how we're going to manage, and that - the arrogance of that thinking and kind of how it's tied to the general thinking of that time in terms of how we were going to develop as a country. So, I mean, kudos to, you know, fulfilling on your intent. It did create economies. It did create an opportunity for municipalities to grow. It did give opportunity for farmlands that traditionally maybe weren't considered farmlands to become farmlands and to grow those economies in those areas. It worked from that standpoint. What did that do to the, you know, other opportunities, you know, for Native Americans? We continue to be an afterthought and hope maybe we would go away.

SAKAS: But the tribes are still here.

DETROW: That was Michael Elizabeth Sakas and Taylar Dawn Stagner from Episode 2 of Parched. Parched is produced by the climate solutions team of CPR News and Colorado Public Radio's Audio Innovation Studio. Its final episode drops July 5. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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