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Opinion: Native Americans need voice in solving water issues

August 4, 2023

August 4, 2023


By Andres Jimenez, Executive Director of Green 2.0, and Michael Roberts, Executive Director of First Nations Development Institute. Read at The Denver Post.

The Supreme Court’s recent 5-to-4 decision in Arizona v. Navajo Nation continues a legacy of restricted water access for Indigenous peoples and limits their access to abundant drinking water, clean drinking water, and adequately treated residential and industrial wastewater.

The Nation argues that under the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, the federal government has a duty to establish and secure water and water rights for the reservation under its trust. Writing for the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh argued the treaty only established property rights and did not obligate the government to assist in tribal requests.

Water, the key to life, is a fundamental right for all humans. However, Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households not to have indoor plumbing. For the Navajo Nation, that number swells to 67 times more likely not to have running water in our homes.

For many Native American communities, water access and water policy is determined by the U.S. government or by advocacy and funding mechanisms that are often piloted by white-led environmental organizations. Often, these organizations operate from afar without adequately understanding or addressing the needs of Native communities.

First Nations Development Institute works to improve economic conditions for Native Americans through direct financial grants, technical assistance and training, and advocacy and policy. Green 2.0 works to build momentum for a stronger, more diverse environmental movement, striving to ensure the needs of communities of color are centered at environmental non-profits and in environmental grantmaking. The need for these two like-minded organizations is great, especially in light of the SCOTUS ruling and the status of Western water rights.

The 30 tribes of the Colorado River Basin are the hardest impacted by reduced rainfall and droughts linked to the climate crisis. Since the federal government holds reservation lands in trust, these tribes are unable to raise revenue through property taxes. The inability to raise taxes places a huge burden on Native communities to address inadequate and aging infrastructure, legacy contaminants from mining, and limited revenue streams.

For Native Peoples, accessing their given right to clean and healthy water is left to government. This means that tribal advocacy and ample foundation dollars must go directly to Native communities to advocate and fix water issues. This requires representation at tables where decisions regarding water, funding, and policy are made, challenging in light of current findings.

Green 2.0’s 2022 NGO and Foundation Transparency Report Card finds that there are no Native Americans on environmental foundation boards or in the executive suite. Most foundations that supply funding for Indigenous peoples and environmental groups seldom look like or employ Native Americans who are closer to the issues.

From 2014 through 2019, foundations awarded little more than $2 billion dollars to environmental causes. Forty-four percent of this funding went to non-Native-controlled organizations. But only one-half of one percent of foundational giving went to Native-led environmental causes and organizations. Research indicates that a large amount of resources intended to support Native community-based work are actually awarded to white, legacy organizations with little to no Native people informing and leading decisions. First Nations and Green 2.0 find that there is frustration with non-Native-led organizations in Native conservation spaces. Non-Native organizations bring their own assumptions and values to environmental work, and there is no guarantee that Native people are meaningfully involved.

The lack of representation and funding surrounding water rights in the West is not sustainable if we are to be committed to environmental justice as a movement. There is much work left to do if we truly want to make environmental justice a reality.

We applaud SCOTUS for finally holding up and honoring the confines of a Native Treaty, but the decision is wrongheaded and detrimental to Native communities. If Native Peoples are truly to find environmental equity and social justice, we must continue to fight for them. We don’t merely deserve a place at decision tables, in policy discussions, or in funding decisions. We demand them.

Michael Roberts is the executive director of First Nations Development Institute and Andres Jimenez is the executive director of Green 2.0.