The Navajo Nation is at the center of the worst global pandemic in recent memory. Although the total number of COVID-19 cases is small compared to national hotspots, the rate of infection is among the nation’s highest.
Today, national media is focused on Navajo water insecurity — a clear threat to Diné people during the pandemic. About 30% to 40% of reservation residents do not have regular running water. But behind this statistic lies a history of racism and underdevelopment. Even as white communities benefited from decades of expensive water infrastructure, Diné communities were denied the rights and resources necessary to access the same water.
Water settlements between tribes and states are a source of much of this continued underdevelopment. For Indigenous people, these settlements also represent colonial dispossession, because they often suspend allocation of water rights and funding for water infrastructure until tribal leaders give in to the state’s demands. In 2005, for example, then-Arizona Republican Sen. Jon denied the Navajo Nation 6,411 acre-feet of water until it resolved its claims to the Colorado River with the state of Arizona.
While the U.S. was violently annexing the Western United States and vigilante militias murdered and displaced Diné and Apache people, settlers moved into Indigenous lands and dammed and diverted rivers. The settlers created a system that enabled them to monopolize the region’s limited water supply. A new legal and political concept became part of Western water law — a concept that favored the expansion of mining companies, farms and a booming livestock industry over the Indigenous communities already using the water.
The Colorado Compact of 1922 brought the entire Colorado River and its tributaries into this water regime. It divided the river into 15 million quantifiable units, known as “acre-feet,” that enabled the U.S. and Western states to more easily divert and distribute water, subject to the laws of the states involved. At the same time, under Winters’ (1908), Indigenous water claims were limited to the date when reservations were established, ignoring centuries of tribal use and governance.
During the New Deal, rural electrification bypassed reservations while the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation competed to dam and divert rivers in the Western U.S. Dams flooded Indigenous lands, killing ecosystems while providing power to settler communities. Water security was soon taken for granted in Western…