Equity In Every Drop: Series One

Episode 3: Crisis on the Colorado River

Series one includes six episodes focused on the issues and advocacy priorities of our Climate and Safe Energy campaign.

This episode of Equity In Every Drop delves into the climate-related complexities surrounding the Colorado River, a critical water source affecting the lives and livelihoods of 40 million Americans, spanning seven states, two countries, and several Tribes. Our first guest, environmental activist, river guide, and Colorado Riverkeeper, John Weisheit, shares his personal connection to and the historical significance of the Colorado River, alongside its current challenges including legal disarray, over-engineering, and significant environmental impact due to dams and water diversion. Weisheit emphasizes the importance of addressing these issues collectively to avert a looming water crisis paralleling historical agricultural downfalls due to salinity and mismanagement.

Additionally, Daryl Vigil of the Water and Tribes Initiative underscores the imperative role of tribes in managing water resources and achieving sustainable water use through collaborative problem-solving. Vigil’s narrative highlights the exclusion of tribes from water management decisions and the dire need for inclusive, equitable solutions that honor Indigenous knowledge and rights. Both guests advocate for a transformative approach to river management, prioritizing natural solutions and respectful engagement with tribal wisdom and leadership to navigate the river’s uncertain future.

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Thank you for listening, sharing, and supporting our mission to ensure everyone’s right to clean water. Together, we demand equity in every drop.


[00:00:00] Thomas Hynes: Welcome Back to Equity in Every Drop. Today we are discussing the Colorado River. We will be joined later by Daryl Vigil of Water and Tribes Initiative, Colorado River Basin. But our first guest today is John Weisheit. John is an environmental activist and river guide in Moab, Utah. The Colorado River begins in the Rocky Mountains and touches seven states and two countries on its way through the American Southwest.

It is the lifeblood for 40 million Americans. Facilitates agriculture and holds spiritual and cultural significance for several tribes. Along with being the Conservation Director of Living Rivers, John is also the Colorado Riverkeeper, a guardian of one of the world’s most important and imperiled waterways.

John, thank you so much for being with us today. 

John Weisheit: Thank you very much for joining me today, Tom. I appreciate it. 

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. So we’ve talked before in the past and I’ve obviously, been a huge fan of your work and just your advocacy and your passion. And it’s just [00:01:00] great to see you again and it’s really great.

And I’m happy for our listeners. They get to hear from you on this issue. Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me what drew you to this work. 

John Weisheit: My parents did. They actually honeymooned on the Colorado river in 1953 when they first got married. I’m their first born son.

And so the, I have a brother and a sister, but as a family of five, we always went to the Colorado river on weekends and vacations. In fact, we eventually built our own house on a small lot below Parker Dam and above the Colorado River Indian Tribes irrigated land near Parker, Arizona. And then and my parents started actually doing river trips.

They thought I would like to do that we rented equipment we did the Green River, which is the major tributary of the Colorado River. And that. That got me hooked. That’s when I decided I would like to be a whitewater river guide, and that’s what happened.

Thomas Hynes: And I don’t want to jump too far ahead, but [00:02:00] what, we see I’m talking to you from Brooklyn, New York, pretty far away from the Colorado River. I’ve spent a lot of time there. Obviously amazed and enchanted by it, like all the other people around the world who come to visit it, give us a, an idea of what is happening with the river today.

John Weisheit: It’s a very long involved story because the Colorado river is the case study for water development for legal systems like compacts with Mexico and compacts with the seven states. The infrastructure was built by the 50 states, the taxpayers of, and that happened in 1902, and one of the very first projects was on the Salt River in Arizona as a matter of fact.

And in a way, it is the case study for the entire world. In fact, for example, one of the first commissioners, his name was Mead. [00:03:00] In fact, this is why Lake Mead Hoover Dam was so named. He actually was from Wyoming, and he created the engineer, State engineer, which monitor the the water districts of the states.

He also spent seven years in Australia and helped the Australians develop their water systems. Another commissioner by the name of Floyd Dominey did a lot of international work. In Asia, in China, and helping them develop their infrastructure and their legal systems. So why I’m saying this is that, right now the Colorado River is in a huge disarray, legally, structurally.

Financially we just, between the EPA, for example, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Agriculture, about eight billion dollars has been spent to try and save the Colorado River. If the case study of the world is in trouble, then does that [00:04:00] mean The rest of the world’s infrastructure, which is based on this river, is in danger too.

If we can’t fix it on the Colorado, perhaps we can’t fix it anywhere. That’s, I thing I’m trying to highlight just how important it is to make sure that there’s a success story here on the Colorado River in 10 or 20 years 

Thomas Hynes: and part of the crisis as you’ve explained it to me and in some of the other interviews and times I’ve heard you speak, is that the, correct me if I’m wrong, but that the river is really almost like a designer ecosystem.

It’s been over engineered over diverted. And when these compacts were set up, the supply exceeded the demand. And now that’s now that’s greatly flipped, correct? 

John Weisheit: Yeah, this infrastructure was built because there was this water scarcity. problem. This is the arid lands of the southwestern United States.

And it was an empty land. And this [00:05:00] was land that at one time or another was either owned by the tribal people or by the Spanish government. And some of the West was actually like the Treaty of Ghent British Columbia the state of Washington and Oregon, for example, there’s been lots of sovereigns in the West.

And the problem for all those sovereigns was water scarcity a huge amount of territory that was rugged and wild and hard to develop. And that’s why these, this part of the country needed the help of the other 50 states. We needed railroads, for example, and we needed water infrastructure because nobody had the capital, they had the interest, they just didn’t have the capital to create water systems for irrigation.

to make up for the lack of rainfall that we have. We’re very much in a way doing exactly what Egypt has done, Mesopotamian empires that have the Euphrates, Tigris River, for [00:06:00] example. We’re just basically following their footsteps as well. If that might be the original case study, actually.

Is those countries of the Middle East, which are also in peril. A lot of the problems in the Middle East are actually climate change problem. And just like our we have here in the Colorado River Basin. 

Thomas Hynes: Now, John, when we last spoke, one of the things I found so interesting that you mentioned is that this water diversion and, irrigation system is not entirely new technology. 

John Weisheit: No it’s not. In fact, we’re experiencing a lot of the same problems that the Mesopotamian empires had, which was salinity, there came a point where eventually they couldn’t farm anymore.

And so what’s ironic is is what made them great, but the decline of their agriculture took away their empire status. 

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, people need food. 

John Weisheit: Yeah. And we’re having those issues too. And salinity is one of our, [00:07:00] that’s our major pollution problem on the Colorado river is salt. 

Thomas Hynes: Can you tell me about the agricultural importance of the river and what that means to. Someone like me and all the way in Brooklyn or in other parts of the country. 

John Weisheit: Yeah. That’s why these dams were built. They are agricultural subsidies from the United States taxpayer. And that, you can’t, that’s the base economy for every civilization without food, you go, that’s energy for people, and and food is energy and somehow he don’t seem to think that, right now, the cities, for example. to thrive and to continue growth. Unfortunately, for the sake of growth, they are now asking the farmers to give them the water that they’ve been using for food. The first institutional reason why we have this irrigation in the first place.

So now the demands are changing. For example there are cities are saying we make [00:08:00] more money per acre foot than the farmers do. So we deserve more water. 

Thomas Hynes: I think this is probably a good place to talk about dams and the risk that they pose I’ll let you talk, but I’m just reminded of when we spoke and some of the statistics you threw out at me about the number of dams in this country that are past their prime and in need of serious repair.

And I think the damage that dams. the ecosystem is clear to people in this movement, but I don’t think it’s as obvious to people outside this work. Can you talk a little bit about that? 

John Weisheit: Yeah. There’s a famous quote. I forgot who gave it, but it goes like this. The person who invented dams also invented dam failure.

And there’s another famous quote by Patricia Limerick, she’s a historian at the University of Utah University in Boulder, Colorado, and her famous saying is the Bureau of Reclamation can only control little floods and little droughts. [00:09:00] When the big ones arrive, the system will fail. When we built these dams, I think the People who paid for it, the taxpayers, the people who initiated the legislation, the senators and the congresspeople, didn’t understand that dams don’t last forever.

The Bureau of Reclamation certainly did. Before even they built their first dam, they knew that the sediment load of the Colorado River would render water storage and water power and generation useless because they would fill up with sediment. They would also use their ability to for flood control with increased sediment storage.

So there is a day of reckoning, there is a day. When the Bureau of Reclamation is going to say we have to take this dam down because it’s no longer safe. But the thing is that the reason why people were allowed to move here and plug in their appliances and so this is because of these dams.

So when these dams go offline, how do we keep [00:10:00] supporting You know, right now it’s 40 million people. What are we going to do when it’s 60 or 80? Because right now there’s no control. There’s no control on growth. 

Thomas Hynes: So I guess what I’m wondering is, I think when we spoke in 2021, the water levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell behind those huge dams were. Drastically and dramatically and dangerously low, almost to the point where there was no more power generation. Where are things today?

John Weisheit: The reservoirs first of all, the nation needs to understand that Lake Mead and Lake Powell are the largest man made reservoirs in the United States. Ironically, there are 25 rivers in the United States, including Alaska, that are bigger than the Colorado River. The reason why these reservoirs are so big is because we have deep canyons and we need that reservoir storage because the Colorado River is the number one sediment load carrier of any river in [00:11:00] North America. So it’s transporting a lot of sediment. That sediment includes organic materials. And so that’s why they’re large. So also we have droughts. We always have drought, but we have these cycles of drought. that are somewhat enduring.

Usually they’ve been four to eight years in length. Now they’re becoming 20 years in length as a result of climate change. We can talk about that more in detail later, but. In other words, we have this legal system and this infrastructure designed in with these two large reservoirs and it’s not working.

You’re right, when it gets to 30 percent full, it starts on hydroelectricity generation. In fact Lake Mead would be defunct right now if it weren’t for the fact that they installed five new generators in 2010. that are designed to work at lower reservoir [00:12:00] elevations. You can do that at Lake Mead because the intakes now we’re getting into the infrastructure realities of the river system, but they need to be addressed because infrastructure It’s not meant to be flexible.

It’s meant to have these reservoirs full. When they’re not full, the infrastructure doesn’t work and you have to make modifications. And they could do that at Lake Mead because the intakes are vertical. There’s four of them. And so they have a lot more flexibility when it comes to reservoir elevation and they can just put in new turbines to accommodate for those low elevations.

But the intakes at Glen Canyon Dam upstream, Lake Powell, they’re Those intakes are horizontal, they’re fixed, they have no flexibility whatsoever. Which means that Lake Mead was designed to have flexibility in drought conditions, but Lake Powell was not. [00:13:00] Unfortunately, Lake Powell is the upstream reservoir.

So in other words, we have engineering problems. In other words, we don’t have the right dam. And the Bureau of Reclamation knows that. And the states know that. But it still stands. And as long as that dam stands, it’s, it jeopardizes the future. If our infrastructure isn’t designed for the future, that means neither is our legal system, but nobody has the will to change either they, they have amendments. They have NEPA documents, we’re talking about the National Environmental Policy Act, and they’re good for 10, 15, 20 years.

But what do we do at the end of the cycle? We’re still stuck with the same problem. We have bad infrastructure, we have inappropriate legal systems. But nobody wants to change these things. there’s rigidity and recalcitrance in the leadership of the Colorado river. That’s what needs to [00:14:00] change. 

And until those things change, we’re, this river is going downhill. No matter how many small time adjustments that we make between now and then. We should just get it over with and get this done so these 40 million people can continue to live here.

What’s happening in the Middle East is what’s gonna be happening here in the Southwest United States. 

Thomas Hynes: So you think this is gonna add to a climate refugee situation? 

John Weisheit: It already is. I think, yeah it’s going to increase. Yeah. And, this is a pretty vibrant economy. And somebody’s going to have to make a move here, which means we’re talking about courage and I don’t see it and I have it. I’m ready to change. 

Thomas Hynes: Okay. So let me ask you silly question for such a serious topic, but If you had a magic wand you could snap your fingers and make things the way you think they should be, what would you change? 

John Weisheit: I think we need to change the leadership because the way the leadership [00:15:00] behaves is they’re just, they’re looking at their day of retirement. They’re bureaucrats, and bureaucrats is what created the problem, so I don’t think bureaucrats can solve it. The science community has tried, and is continuing to try.

There are a lot of PhDs out there on this subject. Those are probably the people who we should listen to, or at least maybe they should be the focus groups for the leadership. In other words maybe it’s time for the bureaucrats to shut up and listen. And who I would listen to is the science community and the tribes, because the tribes understood the, there’s, this is a good opportunity to talk about the naturalist approach instead of the engineering approach, because Engineers, like if there’s a problem, we’re going to, we’re going to solve it for you.

[00:16:00] Unfortunately, it’s rigid, concrete and rebar and creates 10 other problems. Yeah. And we have, the major flooding problems. We have the major drought problems. We have climate change problems. We have growth for the sake of growth and we have tribes that have been discounted. for 500 years.

Maybe it’s time to let the naturalists and the spiritual people take charge and let the bureaucrats listen to them instead of the other way around. 

Thomas Hynes: I just think that in general, natural solutions are first of all, they’re designed better and they’re often cheaper.

And I’m just, this is. Obviously a different ecosystem, but I’m just reminded of oyster restoration here in New York City. Putting an oyster back in its natural habitat and letting it do its thing is beyond valuable to what it’s providing to us. And it’s just a natural solution. It’s how nature was intended.

A small example, but let’s bring this back to the Colorado River. Can you talk a little bit [00:17:00] more about the damage that dams do just in the, just in general as far as ecosystem damage and any other climate impacts from reservoiring our water this way.

John Weisheit: Yeah, dams are a short term solution, if we’re going to be a forever nation, dams are not how you become a forever nation. These are temporary things. Dams actually create problems, for example, I was talking about flooding. As a result of building dams, People have moved into the floodplain, and they still forget that Hoover Dam can handle flows of 300, 400, 000 cubic feet per second, and that’s because they have to.

That’s how nature is. It’s, those floods will come. But, because we are now occupying the floodplain, that means we’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure. That’s bridges, gas lines telecommunications. All the things that provide the water [00:18:00] that is essentially pumped uphill to places like the coastal regions of California, the dry desert valleys of Maricopa County in Arizona and Clark County in Nevada.

In other words, right now it’s working, because we haven’t exceeded the limits of nature, but the limits of nature are set. They don’t happen a lot, but they happen. And when they do, we’re the ones who suffer because we think we’re safe. We can live in the floodplain now. So what this means is we’ve actually. We used planning and zoning ordinances to improve our lives, but that’s exactly what’s going to change our lives, is the fact that we’re, our planning and zoning ignores the limits of nature, and and nature always wins, so we’re going to be the losers and that day is coming, and we’re not.

In other words, the system that now works for 40 million people will eventually not work for [00:19:00] anybody. 

Thomas Hynes: It’s so profound because in this movement, we talk about protecting nature, but really what we’re, nature is going to be fine. It’s ourselves that we need to look out for and protecting nature is a way to do that.

To that end can we talk a little bit about The threats that fossil fuel extraction and climate change are posing to this river system? 

John Weisheit: Yes. Thank you for asking because it turns out the Colorado River Basin has more hydrocarbons than Saudi Arabia does, and people don’t know that. 

Thomas Hynes: I didn’t know that.

John Weisheit: Yeah. It’s called Tar Sands and Oil shell. It’s called the Green River Formation. It takes strip mining to get these resources. It takes lots of water, takes lots of energy to liquefy it because right now it’s, it’s gooey, tarry mess. And, in fact, it was when the National Academy of Sciences was looking at the carbon dioxide problem in the [00:20:00] 1960s and 70s, they specifically set to keep the tar sands and oil shale in the Colorado River Basin in the ground because it would be a carbon dioxide bomb.

We are going to see. Loading of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and processing these, there’s going to come a time when we’re going to run out of liquid, fine grade crude oil and going after these alternative, unconventional sources. And by that time, we’ll also have the carbon loading problem will become self evident.

That’s part of the problem with accepting climate change is it takes, it’s a decadal change, it’s. Sea level rise has been happening since the 1880s, but it hasn’t really been noticeable until this decade, but the problem is that means instead of solving this problem 50 years ago, [00:21:00] we’re now 50 years ahead of ourselves without a solution.

Thomas Hynes: And are there any solutions that you see? Aside from ripping out dams? 

John Weisheit: Oh. Yeah, that, this is where I diverge from a lot of my colleagues. So I do read this, so I am Colorado River focused, and, but it just so happens that the reason why is because Colorado River Basin is, has all the problems, which means it also has all the solutions if we would just have the courage to, to take the stand.

which we don’t have. Which means we have a behavioral problem on top of a infrastructure problem and then on top of a legal problem. , I want to have hope, but 

I guess I best better be honest. I just don’t see it. I think it’s going to crash. And I’ll tell you when I will have hope is when I, when what I previously had said was the bureaucrats shut up and listen, and maybe that includes the politicians. Because that’s who’s [00:22:00] been in charge for the last 120 years, and it’s not getting better.

It’s getting worse. So we need to, we need another, we need different leadership. When that happens, then I’ll have hope. But right now, I don’t, I see a general decay of our quality of life.

Thomas Hynes: I’m glad I shut up and listened. I hope others do the same are there other things you would like to cover here, or get across or 

John Weisheit: well, there, there always is. I think I would like to talk about waste because I don’t think people understand that word. For example, like when you’re brushing your teeth and the parents tell you to turn off your faucet because you’re wasting water that’s not waste.

Thomas Hynes: So tell me about that because I say that to my two year old all the time when he flushes the toilet I say, please don’t do that as fun as it is. What is waste mean to you 

John Weisheit: So that’s what I mean about the naturalist approach to water. The definition of [00:23:00] water is that it’s in constant movement.

It evaporates, it goes into the air, it condenses, it falls on the landscape and the ocean. Some of it gets absorbed as groundwater. It’s in constant movement, so when people say you’re wasting water. Not necessarily. For example the people of the Rio Grande, there’s a bumper sticker that says flush twice, and the reason why is because the wastewater that is processed by our sewer treatment plants gets dumped into the Rio Grande river.

So if you flush twice, you’re putting twice as much water as normal into the Rio Grande, which. There’s a silvery minnow endangered species problem, a riparian gallery of trees that’s imperiled on the Rio Grande. Actually, waste helps the environment. It helps fish. When they, when people say waste, what they’re saying is, that is, [00:24:00] A human use that’s going to a natural use.

What’s wrong with that? What they are, what they really saying is we want human wastewater to be recycled back in to human consumption cycles. So in other words, you’re not saving water. You’re just transferring water where there’s a monopoly of water for humans. And. So this is one of the reasons why I like flood control irrigation 

Thomas Hynes: Just for our listeners, what is flood control irrigation? 

John Weisheit: Flood control, that’s what the Mesopotamians did. One of the solutions we have is to be more efficient. So instead of flood irrigating, let’s use sprinklers. Control the flow so there’s less waste.

See the thing is the Colorado River doesn’t flow to the ocean anymore. There used to be a biosphere of 2 million acres for birds and that 2 million acres is gone. 

Thomas Hynes: And that’s just on the other side of the Mexican border, is that right? Correct. For It reaches the. 

John Weisheit: Whenever I, when I see a flood [00:25:00] irrigated field, guess what is in it?

Pelicans, seagulls, birds in other words, what we consider as waste is actually habitat. We stole water from nature. We stole it from the Indians. And the waste is how we actually give it back, so we’re trying to eliminate waste, and which means we’re eliminating habitat for the tribes.

And for the animals so that the dominant culture can just use more and more water. So are we being efficient to help everybody equitably, or are we just saving water to help the dominant society?

When you talk to Daryl, this will help you he can answer some of these questions. 

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, we’re excited to talk to him next. 

John Weisheit: I guess what I’m saying is if you flush your toilet twice, don’t feel guilty.

You’re actually stopping more development and you’re helping nature. So be wasteful. If you want to help fish and the environment and birds, waste water. 

Thomas Hynes: I had [00:26:00] not thought about it that way at all. 

John Weisheit: Waste actually is how we save the environment, how we save people. migrating birds, how we save fish in the rivers that are drying up. So the point is if you flush twice or if you leave the water running on it, when you brush your teeth, don’t feel bad about it. You’re also going to stop More development.

This is the answer to the paradigm of growth for the sake of growth, you know farmers have limits. They can there’s only so much arable land on this planet But there doesn’t seem to be any limits whatsoever on cities sprawling out into the desert using more and more water, which means you’re stealing it from nature.

Thomas Hynes: John Weisheit. I thank you so much for being here with me today. It’s not the first time we’ve spoken, but it’s just always such a pleasure to talk with you.

We’re talking about some pretty scary stuff, but it’s great to get your expert perspective on this. Thank you so much for being here today. 

John Weisheit: Thank you, Tom. Very [00:27:00] much. I appreciate you calling me and giving this opportunity. 

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. I hope to see you soon. Thank you. 

Our next guest is Daryl Vigil of Water and Tribes Initiative Colorado River Basin.. The Water and Tribes Initiative emerged in 2017 with two objectives. The first was to enhance the capacity of tribes to manage water resources and engage in water 2017 with two objectives.

The second was to support sustainable water use through collaborative problem solving. Daryl, thank you so much for being with us here today.

Daryl Vigil: Thank you for having me. 

Thomas Hynes: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit more about yourself and how you came to get involved in this kind of work. 

Daryl Vigil: I just turned 62, so that’s a long story, but I’ll keep it short. Yeah, my name is Daryl Vigil. I’m an enrolled member of the Hickory Apache Nation. And our reservation borders the New Mexico, Colorado border on the north side. And, of course, on the north side, north of northern part of New Mexico.[00:28:00] 

And I’m also part Zia Pueblo and part Jemez Pueblo. My mother was from Zia. My dad is half, Jemez Pueblo. I’m very grateful that, I come from those three tribes. And I actually, live in Dulce on the reservation here and live next door to my parents. And I’m very grateful to have them still around.

They’re going to celebrate 80 years of life and 60 years of marriage together. And I, I want to just say that because they’ve been a very integral part of, who I am and the experiences and that I’ve had in my life that have led me to this point.

And so very grateful for that. I spent beyond, right now I am the co facilitator of the Water and Tribes Initiative, but before that, I was my tribe’s water administrator for 12 years. And then before that I served as the president of the and then also help develop some section 17 kind of business operations and [00:29:00] including, utility authority and here on the reservation.

And then before that, I was in the business world, my family had a private enterprise on the reservation for 14 years, which is a really back in the day. We opened our hotel in 1984 and, I really got my chops from, working, on a day to day business on the reservation, which had been unheard of before.

And so very grateful to have had all that experience.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, that’s great. That’s a very interesting background and and how did that bring you to getting involved in Colorado River issues?

Daryl Vigil: It was absolutely spiritually motivated for me because the council recognized me and my achievements at a meeting about a month ago. over at the Lodge in Chama. And I was really grateful for that. And then when I was there, I told them the story of that the best thing that my tribe and tribal council ever did for me was to fire me from the gaming enterprise because, it was literally killing [00:30:00] me because, it was oppositional to who I am as a human being in terms of the values that are associated with gaming.

And so I found myself without a job, but I luckily I know how to flip a burger. So I opened a restaurant for a couple of years. I was a single dad and my kids needed benefits. And so I applied for the water administrator job. And I used to call myself the accidental water guy, because I never imagined in any shape or form that I would be doing this work.

But it absolutely, is creator driven in terms of allowing me, to have voice, so water has given me voice and it’s given me purpose. And so those two things combined, I’ll always be grateful for because the issues that we deal with at a water policy level, are consistent with all the issues that tribes have across all areas of governance.

So in this way, I can continue to be who I am as an Indigenous human being [00:31:00] and just really, that’s what I do. I practice who I am as a human being in terms of what I’ve been taught. That means And I’ll always be grateful for that because it brought me back to who I am as an indigenous person.

And because that’s not the pathway that I was headed. I wanted to make millions of dollars and nothing wrong with that. But but when that’s your sole purpose, it’s a sickness in itself and it pervades itself for me. It did anyway, in lots of different negative ways.

And I’ll always be grateful that, the creator said, Nope, you don’t belong over there. You belong over here. 

Thomas Hynes: That’s an awesome way to put it and such an awesome perspective that, you’ve not to borrow such an obvious water cliche, but you’ve gone with the flow and trusted the journey and trusted the process.

Daryl Vigil: Just real quickly that, being from two through three different Indian tribes acceptance is a huge thing, cause I grew up in Zia, but I’m an enrolled member of Hickory and the fact that we still have blood quantum and enrollment and those kinds of [00:32:00] things, a real unconscionable and it really puts, young people in, a bad state in terms of belonging and acceptance.

And and one of the things that, you know my grandmother from Zia’s told me was, You’re from here. This is what you were born into as well. And so now it’s your charge to make sure that what goes on here can continue. You may not be a member here, but you’re from here.

And part of that, your responsibility to ensure our continued existence. And wow, that’s a, that was quite the thing for me because, I was feeling sorry for myself and my grandmother, once again, put it into incredible perspective about, wow, your role is this and, and inherently you carry what’s here anyway.

And so you don’t need to feel bad about. Something that was created not by us by, by others who didn’t understand us, as a way to get rid of us. And she didn’t [00:33:00] say to that extent, but I understand genocide

Thomas Hynes: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So when you were in charge of the water authority before founding this initiative, or was it founded around the same time and that led you to start the initiative? 

Daryl Vigil: Yeah, it’s, it overlapped maybe about five years or so. And, I was my tribe’s water administrator and. Found out, very quickly where, we were at with our water rights and where tribes were at in, in the Colorado River Basin, in terms of being excluded from the the oh seven guidelines and then also participation in the basin wide study that began in 2009. 

Thomas Hynes: Tribes were excluded from that study in 2007? 

Daryl Vigil: In 2007, we were excluded from any. Participation in the creation of the operational guidelines and management framework for the Colorado River and people who don’t know this already because I’ve said it repeatedly over for the last 14 years. It’s why is this [00:34:00] important?

Because there’s 30 tribal sovereigns in the Colorado River basin and they hold collectively rights to 3. 4 million acre feet of water rights, which is 25 percent of the water in the river and increasing. And the reality is that even today, May 20th, 2024, we don’t have any structural inclusion.

To speak on behalf of our water rights that has been left to the trust responsibility of the federal government, and it’s left to the state water rights that we have to operate in within our respective seven states. So we saw that during COVID. What does that mean on the ground?

You still have 70, 000 Navajos hauling water every single day. And what that meant was, there was people still in this country who didn’t have access to clean water and the majority of them were Native Americans, 19 times more likely not to have indoor plumbing and in [00:35:00] 2024.

And that’s why it’s important because we weren’t self determined in terms of our ability. To develop our own raw water rights and direct those natural resources where people could live and not die. And that’s why it’s so important, and that’s why, I got the kind of the understanding of that.

But 14 years ago, when I started this, there the relationships with states and tribes is pretty much non existent. Same with the federal government. It was non existent. And then, even more so with the communities we lived in. And being able to, create an, a sounding board and then the listening for just basic and understanding that tribes are still here.

And this is where we’re at. We’re at the top of the worst list in almost every category. And, there’s a few tribes, who do pretty well geographically, maybe, but they suffer from the same social ills. And part of that reason is because we have an [00:36:00] unreconciled past as indigenous people in this country.

And until that is reconciled to a large extent, it’s hard for us to create a future for ourselves. And I’ll use the example of Jicarillas, we had an expansive area south of Colorado Springs all the way out to the Panhandle, all the way to the Chama Valley here and Ghost Ranch. And guess what?

When you put us on a finite piece of land, as traditionally hunter, semi nomadic gatherers, That completes the genocide, because, you could completely alter who we are as humans in terms of our ability to be who we were for thousands of years. And so we’ve never had the situation where we’ve had an ability to really reconcile that past and build capacity because, those structures of extermination, assimilation, and termination are woven into the fabric of all our [00:37:00] governance structures at the federal level.

And you gotta remember, the termination era was as early as the 50s. And that’s not long ago where there were people, still trying to get rid of of indigenous people in this country. And part of this movement, It also is about, just recently the Basin Tribal Coalition, which we have the honor to facilitate, drafted and sent a letter to Camille Tootin that 20 tribes have signed on to now.

And at the heart of that at the letter, it talks about, not about a tribal alternative in terms of, the traditional way that the federal government looks at this, but Core principles and elements that need to be involved in anything that the federal government does moving forward, and that’s trust, responsibility, flexible tools and inclusion.

And you had 20 tribal sovereigns, like 20 nations. Like if 20 states collectively signed on to something that might mean [00:38:00] something. And we’re at parity of sovereignty with the states. And so we’re really trying to, have people understand. That parity exists and then it’s knowledge.

And so we need to be included so we can, continue to exist in terms of being able to speak on behalf of our own water rights. And why is this important? Just most recently, the Supreme court, ruled against Navajo, who had a case against the state of Arizona and the Bureau of Reclamation, 

and and they lost and they said that the record bureau of reclamation can execute trust responsibility , as it sees fit. And so part of this movement really is to, we got to define trust responsibility for ourselves. We got to figure out the mechanisms that we want in terms of, the tools that are needed and the capacity that needs to be built to actually be a part of the conversation.

And. And three structural inclusion, and again, there’s progress there because for the first time, this past March, [00:39:00] the feds last March the feds federal government started a federal state tribal dialogue and it didn’t really have much substance because there wasn’t much to be had joint posturing.

But now, I think now that there’s actually something tangible to talk about and tribes and have an understanding of the mechanisms of what’s going to be created. It’s a lot more robust conversation in terms of, how do we address these issues moving forward collectively?

 If we don’t clear up all the gray areas in terms of unquantified, undeveloped, unused, unsettled water, tribal water rights, then that’s a gray area and the basins been benefiting from over, close to a million acre feet of unused tribal water that’s not being able to be developed by those tribes because of the way the structure and the governance is set up.

And we want equal access because most tribes are just barely at the point of building economies. And if you don’t have the ability to [00:40:00] have those resources and water is the main thing for that, then it makes it really hard to do that. And just basic things like over at Hopi, they have about 8, 000 feet of asbestos lined pipes and their main provider of services in all the Hopi villages is the Indian Health Service.

And they know about this. But it hasn’t been done because there’s other greater priorities. If you could imagine if something has more priority than an asbestos line pipe. Because I know that in our community we used to have those and we had an absolutely increased incidence of cancer. And if this was any other community in Arizona, that would be fixed in an instant.

And why is it that it’s still happening there? We think about, you know, when I when I think about, that the question that you asked in terms of why is this important? Because wow. Your best thinking got us [00:41:00] here.

Everything that we’ve done has gotten us to this point and there’s really nothing else in my mind that can be utilized in terms of incremental change. It needs to be transformed completely because, there’s a. A lot of different voices. And when I talk about, tribal voices, it’s really important to understand that, the way I was taught, and, I visited almost every tribe in the basin.

And to hear their thoughts about water and, and their, the value that they place on it. And every single time you talk you share this humility of this understanding that we’re just part of a greater whole, and if we’re part of a greater whole, then, you know, what do we do to be, we’re just part of that mechanism.

So when we talk about tribal water rights, of course, it’s about the environment. Because that’s who we are and about all living creatures. And and there’s none more important than the other, because it’s supposed to be in balance and we haven’t been [00:42:00] in balance in a long time. And so I think that, I’ve been hearing your resounding kind of feedback about Wow.

There’s this mantra of native thought, while being the solution to the basin’s problems in terms of living within your means. And and tribes are willing to do that. Even though we even haven’t been gotten, we haven’t been privy to what we should be getting.

There’s always that thought of wow, we need to do something about, look at the, how that, that river looks. So look at, look at this, arid desertification that’s happening on our Southern end of our reservation and those things about sustainability and resilience. This experiment of this country and this experiment of this basin are 102, 200 plus years old now, but we’ve been living in this basin for 30,000 years plus.

And and so when you talk about what do we have to offer? We can show you how we did it, it’s still available and and that what does [00:43:00] that mean? It means, conversations about our own values.

And that’s why that second piece is so important too, because the relationship piece, the upper Colorado river commission meets with the six upper basin tribes now on a monthly basis, and they rotate the different venues of the different states and the different tribes.

Guess what? They just passed an MOU, historic MOU, about a month ago that lays out an agreement with the four upper basin states and the six upper basin tribes that we’re going to work together to the extent the law will allow us to do. And when you see the gatherings now, when you see. Utah state leaders in the same room as the Utes of Utah.

That’s pretty amazing. In terms of the willingness after the atrocities that the Utes have faced in terms of their water rights in Utah, that they’re sitting down now, and that even Wyoming that hasn’t, doesn’t have any tribes on the river, and I’ve [00:44:00] told over and over again.

Do the right thing though. They’re doing the right thing in terms of supporting this conversation and to see state leaders, hug it out with tribal leaders. That was contentious before is a really cool thing to see. And there’s, they’re starting to be a little glimmer of understanding about how far we’re behind in capacity because my tribe settled its water rights in 1992.

And guess what, it’s taken us 30 years to develop the capacity. So we’re almost, we’re a hundred years behind, and we’re not unusual in that paradigm that, we haven’t built the capacity to maybe responsibly represent our membership in terms of participation in the negotiations.

And so that’s become really critical too, in terms of Expediting that capacity building on on the tribal side and on the federal side and on the state side and on the municipal side, because there’s this thinking that just that this one, the [00:45:00] capacity building is one sided. No it’s all sided in terms of, because we’ve never dealt with each other.

siloed. And so creating these One sided. Conversations and structures for conversations and pathways for relationship and then institutionalizing them, maybe even at the state level and a regional level so that we can actually move things so that, um, we don’t have to be in this position where we’re fighting over water, and John Fleck called it right in terms of water.

And The thing that is provocative about that or is the law itself. It promotes contentiousness. It doesn’t promote relationships. It talks about who, who has what and who has a right to what and then and usually those people who developed already have developed the rules as well.

And Really trying to, so all areas, that’s the whole thing. And when you think about this, Tom, it’s wow. I, it [00:46:00] goes back to the fundamental relationship that tribes have as, as domestic sovereigns with their federal sovereign, the United States government is absolutely in is highlighted by the fact.

That they still call us Indians. It’s pretty amazing. That in this day and age that there’s been no effort, to maybe to help that relationship and to honor and dignify us as who we really are by it’d be easy just to call it the Bureau of Indigenous Affairs, but we’re not Indians and the fact that are at a very fundamental level. Our federal government still calls us that. 

Thomas Hynes: I completely agree with you on that, and I remember I was looking into this a couple years ago about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the only thing I’ll say that progress has been made there is that when the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created, it was part of the Department of War. If that gives you a [00:47:00] sense of the posture and the perspective of how they’re going about this.

At least it’s been moved to the Department of Interior. And I completely co sign your suggestion to rename that. But that’s a great point. There’s a lot of very great points that you made there. And , I just want to take a second just and get my thoughts around that because that was, That was a lot of really good information.

There were like five points in there. I was like, wait, I’m going to break in with a question. But but I didn’t want to interrupt you. So let me just take a breath here and I’ll let you take a sip of water. Yeah. I just think it’s so fundamental obviously, water is so important to everything that we do.

It’s so tied to our economies and just our own being and existence. And the fact that indigenous communities and tribes and sovereigns were not allowed to even be part of the planning until very recently is pretty galling. Now you speak to, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but it almost sounds like you, you feel that there is some progress or positive [00:48:00] momentum in this scenario and in this paradigm or this relationship, however you want to put that.

Do you agree with that? 

Daryl Vigil: Absolutely. I do. And and it’s been built by, again, the consensus and the drive of tribal leadership and, kudos to them in terms of recognizing that, what’s the saying, your mama’s not coming for you, or nobody’s going to come save you, and there used to be this thing that Stanley Pollock would say, who represented Navajo, he would always say, the Bureau of Reclamation, they’re not your friends.

I took that to heart in terms of meaning , they have a job to do and they’re going to execute the mandates of the jobs and the policy as it’s written. And we didn’t have any, any kind of part in any of that, they used to create, this tribal reclamation day when I first got on.

I remember the one of the first meetings I went to, it was about, their Indian policy and their trust responsibility as they defined it. And I [00:49:00] remember that there was no meetings before about, what we thought about it. They created internally, and then we’re presenting it to tribes to see what they thought.

And that’s been the M. O. for how things have worked in the Indian country for so long in terms of, our inclusion. But that’s changed. And, it took 14 years to get to the point where, these conversations exist. To the benefit of both sides for the tribes, really, understanding that this is really an existential threat to us.

We’re already at the tipping point. And if we don’t, have basic access to some of the basic things that need to keep us alive, it makes it harder to move forward, in terms of building capacity and those kind of things. And there has been progress and, and we’re going to continue to push because this administration under Biden talked about a whole of government approach and then cross agency communication.

And we have the first, Native American woman secretary of [00:50:00] interior, all those things are great. But it hasn’t moved as fast as I would like to see it. And that, the interagency kind of communication and work really hasn’t evolved either. And there’s still lots of work to do and and it’s a way better than it was, but, You’re talking again about a hundred years of entrenched mindsets.

And one of the things that really, I would, I created a relationship with Pat O’Toole, who was the head of the Family Farm Alliance. And we became friends and, we didn’t agree on everything, but he invited me to Reno this year for the Family Farm Alliance’s first ever tribal panel.

And and, I got to tell those folks. Wow, I understand your connection to the land because some of you are third or fourth generation farmers, but can you imagine like Secretary Haaland talks about 340 generations. Yes, we understand your connection to the land. And yes, 

we know what it feels like [00:51:00] to have something taken away from you. So we’re grounded in the same values, maybe we just look at it a little bit differently. And they said that was the most well received panel that they had in a while, because it’s about, touching base, about, where are we coming from?

And one of the things I told Pat O’Toole is I understand your connection, but I just want you to be cognizant and understanding of the price that was paid for you to have that opportunity.

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, that’s a really good point. And you hear that a lot. And it’s it’s always jarring to me to hear Western ranchers say, Oh what would you do if your land was taken from you? You’re like, yeah, imagine that. Just a few things that jumped out at me in what you just said. You said this is an existential threat to tribes. The river is an existential threat, and the river’s health and being is an existential threat to 1 in 10 Americans, right? There’s a lot of people who are relying on this.

How do you go about [00:52:00] planning and engineering and diverting and, all these other designs on a river system without taking in the perspective of communities who have lived in the basin for 30, 000 years. That’s insane. So with that and pulling a question out of that statement, what is your perspective On how to handle this river system more appropriately, more effectively, more sustainably.

Because it does seem, and again I’m coming to you live from New York city, so I’m very far away from the basin, but it’s international news, it’s national news, that this is a river in crisis. So this is a question to you. What do you see as a solution? What do you see as a better way of doing this? 

Daryl Vigil: Traditionally as a native, as an indigenous person, it goes back to the same old concepts of, having the humility of knowing that you’re part of a larger whole. And if you’re part of a larger whole, then you’re going to look at it, from a lot different perspective in terms of, [00:53:00] what is important?

And and when you talk about things like conservation and whatnot, people don’t realize that, or the demand caps that until we have everybody connected to conservation, conservation really can’t happen till all people have access to clean water.

Number one. And that has to be cleaned up, because people die, died from COVID at a large rate because they didn’t have access to clean water. And so I think that’s, when you think about conservation and most people think about conserving, we’re like why don’t they do their part?

We are. And then when I think about a solution, it has to be driven in my mind, again, by the collective values of the people in the basin. And when we did an interview in the document that was called toward a sense of the basin, every single person that we interviewed, They said two things that needed to happen, that they wanted to see a healthy, [00:54:00] sustainable living Colorado River.

And they wanted to see tribal inclusion into that process. And so the solution, in my mind, absolutely has to be driven by the building of consensus. And the acceptance of the reality of our situation and not, live in this world of this apportionment that was created not by us or not by anybody else.

And these mechanisms to allocate water. That are based in a system that’s archaic now and doesn’t address equity and inclusion and basic human rights. And when I think about the solution, it’s, like everything else that we’ve done, an answer or a solution has emerged by, by building that consensus of values and having frank conversation about what needs to happen.

And one of the things that I love about Brad Udall. Climate Scientist, he’s my [00:55:00] good buddy I tease him about, we used to work small hotel conference rooms, 10, 15 years ago because nobody would listen, about how dire the situation is. It’s this thing’s broken.

I said that at my first Colorado Water Users Association meeting. This system is broken. And nothing you can do based on the current structure is going to save it. And Brad Udall used to say, scientists, come on. We’re in this for 150 years. We’re only 20, 25 years into this. And if that’s the case, come on scientists, stand up for your work, be an advocate for your own positions in terms of what as the truth.

And the truth is that, the current hydrology can only support a certain amount of things. And it’s been slanted in terms of who’s been able to be able to benefit from that. And we know they try to protect economies when other places haven’t been able to even build economies.

They [00:56:00] created, natural disasters like the Salton Sea that have never been addressed. So those migrant farm workers continue to die there. When those farmers in Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley, I don’t know how did they wake up and live with themselves to know that’s still happening and it’s still not fixed, and and and it’s a mindset and I understand that mindset cause I used to be part of that world cause I was a gaming guy and I was an oil and gas guy and it’s all about, continuing to create those mechanisms for him continued wealth. And so when you talk about solutions, again, I talk a lot about, creating different scales of economy.

What do I mean by that? So that, possessions and things, aren’t the most important thing to strive for, otherwise, we’re never going to close this, divide that we have now. To the haves and the have nots, and it just keeps on seeming to get bigger and bigger because of the values that you know that this [00:57:00] country operates from in terms of capitalism, and I love capitalism.

I love the idea of creating new things and business. But wow, this is different than that. We’ve created a situation where, wow, you know, those who don’t have an opportunity have less opportunity. Those who had more opportunity continue to gain in that area. How do we bridge that divide?

It’s got to be by accepting the truth of our situation and not living in some fantasy world of what we think it’s supposed to be.

Thomas Hynes: no, that’s amazing. And I respect what you’re saying about capitalism. In a way it’s a great system. It allows people to become what they want to be. But I really also really appreciate what you’re saying about knowing the humility of knowing that you’re part of a bigger system.

And, we were saying earlier that it’s an existential threat. And is an existential threat to everybody. It’s not, the indigenous communities might feel it first, but the pain’s not going to stop there. And, even if the U S government were [00:58:00] just, it might even be just in their selfish interest for their own self preservation and for the sake of all Southwestern economies and agriculture and everything else.

To get this right, because, this is something we really can’t afford to lose. 

Daryl Vigil: And for me, it’s, you bring up a incredible point of how arrogant we’ve become as a race on this planet because we’ve indiscriminately decided that, oh, we don’t need that fish. We don’t need that bird. But it’s all connected. And guess what? We’re part of that ecosystem. At some point in time, we’re going to be the ones that’s not going to be a part of this anymore. I really appreciate, the broader kind of thinking too, because climate change is, I call it killing earth.

And it’s like, how do we nurse our planet back to health to the extent that we can given the reality of 8 billion people? And, that’s a challenge. And But at least we’re having conversations about it. I’ve been to the [00:59:00] UN, I’ve been to this will be my second time to Stockholm for World Water Week and the first of their kind indigenous conversations that we’ve taken over there to highlight, what the progress that’s been made in the Colorado River Basin, because as you said, the world is watching because I think there’s hope that, we’ll do the right.

thing. And by doing the right thing, it can be an example to a whole lot of other places too. This is what was needed to have something work. And when you talk about the existential threat, absolutely. And then the only reason it’s heightened for tribes is because we’re just have never had an opportunity to really get to a point of thinking about. really about our future and how we integrate with the rest of society.

Thomas Hynes: No, that’s amazing. But this has been an amazing conversation. 

Daryl Vigil: I just want to make sure that I acknowledge, the work that we’ve done isn’t possible without the relationships and the partnerships we’ve done, like my uncle [01:00:00] John Weisheit, and getting to know, because he took me on my first float trip.

And and we have, So many partners that are engaged in this, who are supportive and advocates of the Water and Tribes Initiative work because they absolutely have seen the results and participated in the actions to help build a capacity across all areas, but most particularly tribal. And then also the relationship piece, because if there weren’t willing partners, we couldn’t do this as well.

And willing, goes into the next part of the question that you ask, willing to be open minded and honest. And in terms of, I think there is hope, but it lies. And I think, what I’ve seen in our country in the acknowledgement of the truth about our past and Whether it’s indigenous or African Americans or Spanish colonization, there’s been a whole lot of things that have been pretty much whitewashed and that history has been, [01:01:00] manipulated into an outcome that somebody wanted, but if we’ve never dealt with it, it’s gonna come up again.

And I see the hope in the willingness and the acknowledgement that, there was a race of people here who lived here for 30 some thousand years, and they were nearly obliterated first by disease and by two waves of colonization, but they’re still here. And I hope that would give people hope in terms of like that those traditions and those languages to a lot to a large part are still here.

And I really believe, that again, that’s creator driven in terms of, what are we meant to be? Ultimately, I leave that in the hands of the creator, and all I do is, hopefully I’m a guy on the ground doing the leg work, and trying to be helpful and be of service as much as I can.

And I think that’s been one of the. Biggest things that I found in my adventures is that, the human, element to this and that there’s so many willing partners out [01:02:00] there that are willing to, but they just don’t know yet. And so their potential partners too, in terms of if they have the right information, they’ll understand.

And that’s all we’re asking for, because, that gives us, the dignity of honoring. Who we’ve been and we’re who we are now and allowing us to create our future for ourselves and our people and our Children, because a lot of instances that’s not available.

And those are the same values. I think most Americans want to. 

Thomas Hynes: Yeah, absolutely. And I love the way you put it. Like people who don’t know the situation, probably will be allies once they know. And that’s a really optimistic and generous perspective on people. I like the way that you put that. I like the way you put that a lot. 

So Daryl, this has been incredible speaking to you today. And just for our listeners his website is waterandtribes. org. You can learn more about the Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin there. I think this has been a really [01:03:00] refreshing conversation, a really enlightening conversation, and just your kindness and your generosity towards other people really comes through. So I really appreciate you being here today.

Thank you so much. 

Daryl Vigil: Thank you so much for letting me be able to share what I know.