Upper Basin Colorado River Arizona

1. Basin Overview

The Navajo Nation has water rights to the Colorado River in the Upper Basin in Arizona. representing the North-Central and Northeast areas of Arizona. There are 27 Navajo Chapters apart of the Colorado River Upper Basin.

Under the Colorado River Compact of 1922, the seven basin states established a framework to apportion the water supplies between the Upper Basin and the Lower Basin; each was apportioned 7.5 million acre-feet (MAF) annually for beneficial use. The dividing line between the two basins is at Lees Ferry, AZ.

In 1948, the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was adopted for the purposes of providing apportionment of the River among Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Arizona’s yearly allocation for the Upper Basin Colorado River Arizona is 50,000 acre-feet per year (afy). Water infrastructure, such as dams and power plants, along the Colorado River and its tributaries are the products of this compact, such as Glen Canyon Dam.[1]

2. Hydrology

Yearly snowpack accounts for most of the water deposited into the Colorado River Basin. Studies reveal that climate change and drought are altering the amount of snowpack and the timing of spring runoff, causing water supply strains on the Colorado River. Glen Canyon Dam was authorized by Congress in 1956 to provide water storage in the Upper Basin, thus creating Lake Powell. It is the second largest man-made reservoir in the United States. At full capacity, it stores 24 MAF. Water infrastructure, such as dams and power plants along the Colorado River, impact water use and storage. According to the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), Lake Powell was at 39% capacity on July 25, 2023.[2]

The Department of the Interior through BOR plans to initiate Federal action regarding the formal development of Post-2026 operating guidelines and strategies to protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River from climate change and drought. The new guidelines will replace the 2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations for Lake Powell and Lake Mead, which expire at the end of 2026.

3. History Regarding Water Rights

Actions taken by the Navajo Nation concerning the use ofwater in the Upper Basin in Arizona include:

CJY-95-66: “[A]ffirm the right of the Navajo Tribe to [50,000 af] of water from the Upper Colorado River Basin pursuant to the [Upper River Basin Compact].”

CJN-50-69: “[The Tribe] agrees that of the [50,000 af] of water per year allocated to the State of Arizona, pursuant to Article III(a) of the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, [34,100 af] shall be used for a coal-fired power plant to be located on the Navajo Reservation for the life time of the proposed power plant or for 50 years, whichever shall occur first, and an estimated [3,000 af] per year that may be used for the Glen Canyon Unit of the Colorado River Storage Project along with its associated community and recreation developments in Arizona.”


 4. Current Status: Litigation, Settlements, Etc.

The Navajo Nation is currently engaged in settlement negotiations for water rights in the Upper Basin ColoradoRiver Arizona (see map).

Once finalized, this settlement will quantify Navajo Nation’s claims within Arizona as well as funding for water infrastructure projects. It will provide a legal framework that recognizes and secures water rights and ensure a sustainable and reliable water supply. This settlement will empower the Nation to actively participate in water resource management, enabling decision making that align with cultural, environmental, and economic needs. Additionally, it establishes a foundation for collaboration between Tribal, state, and federal entities. Ultimately, a finalized settlement will become a cornerstone for building resilience, promoting community well-being, and preserving the vital connection between the Diné and their ancestral lands.

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