Accessing and Protecting Nature’s Most Precious Resource: Water

Several recent articles and a recent conversation with friends about Standing Rock brought back the horrors endured by the Water Protectors who protested the Dakota pipeline build. The excessive use of police force, water cannons, chemical sprays and lockups on peaceful protesters whose actions were rooted in prayer was astonishing. Several Haskell Indian Nations University students sacrificed an entire semester to travel to Standing Rock and maintain solidarity for the protest.

Even as No-DAPL protesters continue fighting for the protection of clean water in the Dakotas, another water crisis is brewing in the drought-ridden Southwest. As one PWNA Board member noted, “water is the next battlefront” for Tribal communities.

The Bureau of Land Reclamation, under the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, must contend with serious and encroaching water issues. Drought is creating adverse consequences not only for people in the Southwest but also for livestock and other animals. If there isn’t enough water for animals, there soon will not be enough water for people.

Water concerns cut across jurisdictions, federal agencies and administrations, and Tribal communities that PWNA serves are no strangers to contaminated drinking water. Yet, several iterations of the Clean Water Act, as well as court appeals and regulatory challenges, are bogging down the implementation of any substantive solutions and it is clear that the water issues will not be resolved anytime soon. However, this could change going forward, as some water campaigns and policy commitments have been well received. Many constituents praised New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her 30×30 campaign that seeks to protect 30% of New Mexico’s land and water by 2030. This puts New Mexico at the forefront of creating a water policy or roadmap that others can build on, including neighboring states.

In Arizona, the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, resulting in mandatory cutbacks to water allotments. This presents inevitable challenges and adverse impacts to farmers, animals and growing residential communities. These reductions are part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and are likely to compound at a faster rate in the future.

This is where the juxtaposition of water protection and water availability strikes me. There is a clear apex of policy and resources and yet it seems the issues are pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand, Native Americans are fighting to keep their water sources clean. On the other, they are fighting to have any water at all.

Instead of building pipelines to carry tar sands across the country, maybe we should build them to transport water. This is an oversimplified solution, but our elected national and local leaders have a responsibility to make decisions, develop policies and identify solutions that are permanent, sustainable and responsible and to ensure proper stewardship and equitable distribution of this precious resource.

After all, the Lakota phrase that inspired the Standing Rock protesters is as true today as it was five years ago – Water is Life (“Mni Wiconi”).

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