In the lawsuit, the tribe claimed that the federal government had failed to fulfill its duty to “address the extent to which Navajo Nation requires water from Colorado River to make its Arizona lands productive.”
In 2019, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow from Arizona rejected the claim. He stated that the tribe had not proven that it had violated any duty of trust. He also questioned whether a ruling by the tribe would violate the Supreme Court’s findings from the ongoing Arizona v. California litigation.
The 9th U.S. based in San Francisco. Circuit Court of Appeals, San Francisco-based 9th U.S.
The court concluded that “The Nation’s claim is an action for breaching trust — not a claim seeking to judicial quantification its water rights.” The court of appeals ruled that the tribe could continue its breach-of-trust claim.
The federal government and the states appealed to Supreme Court. In November, the Supreme Court agreed to accept the case.
“Cloud of Uncertainty”
The federal government’s solicitor general Elizabeth Prelogar argues that the tribe failed to show any duty of trust to the federal government when it comes to accessing water from a particular source.
“The United States has a trust relationship with Indian tribes. She wrote that the United States does not have any judicially enforced duties because of the existence this general relationship.
She stated that if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe, that would mean that the government would violate an Arizona v. California 1964 decision. This ruling restricted the circumstances under which the federal government could divert water to the Lower Colorado River.
Federal officials refused to comment on the litigation.
The tribe’s arguments were also rejected by the other states involved in the case, Arizona, Nevada. Colorado’s lawyers stated in the brief that a decision for the tribe would cause “immediate, and long-term disruptions to coordinated management of Colorado River.”
States highlight that they have already implemented a 2007 water shortages agreement as well as a 2019 drought contingency plan.
All three California water districts and the federal government are involved in the lawsuit. They argue that a win by the tribe would mean rights to the main channel for the Colorado River.
Rita Maguire was the lawyer representing the states and California water districts at the Supreme Court. She stated in an interview that while the tribe now focuses on the general obligation of the government to ensure water access, it is “clear the Navajo want a water right to Lower Colorado River.”
She said that any change in water allocation could “cause harms to other countries.” She said that a ruling for the tribe would give it priority, which “creates uncertainty.”
The Supreme Court is known for being hostile to Native Americans and tribal officials know this. In a decision that extended state control over their territory, the court ruled in favor of Oklahoma’s tribes last year.