Little Colorado River Arizona

1. Basin Overview

The Navajo Nation has water rights claims in the Little Colorado River Basin Arizona. The Little Colorado River (LCR) Basin Arizona is located in northeastern Arizona and is a tributary to the Colorado River. In addition, the LCR Basin extends into New Mexico. Today, 44 Navajo Chapters are located or partially located within the LCR Basin in Arizona. 

In 1928, Congress approved the Boulder Canyon Act that divided the 7.5 million acre-feet among three Lower Basin states. However, it is important to note that Congress intended to apportion only the mainstream, leaving each State their own tributaries, such as the LCR.

2. Hydrology

The Little Colorado River watershed spans nearly 27,000 square miles and covers around 23% of the State of Arizona and a small portion of western New Mexico. It flows westward passing south of Petrified Forest National Park before reaching the town of Holbrook, the Painted Desert, and the Navajo Nation.

Between the city of Winslow and the community of Leupp, the River’s channel has shifted back and forth over the span of a mile in the last 75 years. Past Leupp, the River plummets 185 feet at Grand Falls, which flows heavily during spring runoff and summer storms. Past the town of Cameron, the gorge becomes very rugged, reaching depths of up to 2,000 feet as it continues west. In its final stretch, the LCR flows year-round, fed by Blue Springs on Navajo Nation and Sipapu Springs. These springs are heavily mineralized sources that create spectacular travertine dams and waterfalls and give the River a turquoise color. The LCR flows into the Colorado 80 miles below Lake Powell in Grand Canyon National Park, having traveled 315 miles and dropped over 5,000 feet in elevation.[1]

The LCR watershed supports over 5,000 acres of streamside wildlife habitat, varying from alpine meadow to desert cottonwood groves, and includes breeding grounds for the endangered humpback chub, a small fish dependent on the River’s warm waters, and habitat for numerous other endangered species, including the Mexican gray wolf, Southwestern willow flycatcher, black-footed ferret, and California condor.[2]

3. History Regarding Water Rights

Little Colorado River adjudication (General Adjudication to use water from the Little Colorado River system and source, civil case no. 6417, Superior Court for Apache County.).This general stream adjudication was filed in 1978 to determine the nature, extent, and priority of all water rights within the LCR Watershed. The Navajo Nation filed its Statement of Claim in 1985. The Zuni and White Mountain Apache Tribes resolved their water rights claims pursuant to settlements entered in 2003 and 2014, respectively. 

The Proposed Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012. In 2012, the proposed Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement failed to obtain approval from the Navajo Nation Council, Hopi Tribal Council, and US Congress. It would have required all water rights of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to be held in trust for the Nation, the Tribe, and their allottees. Additionally, the act would have implemented a Tribal Wash Management Plan and several water infrastructure projects, as well as groundwater protections. However, the primary concerns, including the waiving of water claims in the LCR in exchange for water project development and the inclusion of terms relating to the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Coal Mine, added to the eventual lack of support for the Act.


4. Current Status: Litigation, Settlements, Etc.

There are two phases of litigation for the Navajo portion of the LCR Adjudication. Phase I addresses the Nation’s claims for stock ponds, livestock and wildlife watering, wells, springs, impoundments, and domestic, commercial, municipal, and light industrial (DCMI) uses on the Navajo Reservation. The Phase I trial was held from April 24, 2023 to August 4, 2023. The post-trial briefing process will end on March 15, 2024. The Phase I closing oral arguments are scheduled for April 16 to 17, 2024 for the Navajo Nation, U.S., Hopi Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, Arizona State Land Department, Salt River Project, City of Flagstaff, and LCR Coalition.

Phase II will address the Nation’s claims for cultural, unique tribal, recreational, fish, wildlife/conservation, mining, heavy industrial/commercial and irrigation uses, and priority.  The Phase II trial is scheduled to begin on September 20, 2027.


[1] USGS. (2023, June). Hydrologic Framework and characterization of the little Colorado River alluvial aquifer near Leupp, Arizona. Hydrologic framework and characterization of the Little Colorado River alluvial aquifer near Leupp, Arizona | U.S. Geological Survey.

[2] Western Resource Advocates. (2012, May). Celebrating Arizona’s Rivers. Western Resource Advocates.

[3] USGS. (2009). Water-data report 2009 09396100 Puerco River near Chambers, AZ. USGS Water Data Report.

[4] Millard, J., Gallaher, B., Baggett, D., & Cary, S. (1983, September). The Church Rock Uranium Mill tailings spill: A health and environmental assessment. EPA Records Collection.

[5] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (2011, August). Navajo Nations-Little Colorado (Upper Puerco). Albuquerque District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Terms Of UsePrivacy StatementCopyright 2024 by NNDIT
Back To Top