Oral arguments were presented to the U.S. Supreme Court in Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation and State of Arizona v. Navajo Nation on March 20. The two cases involving water rights in the western United States, specifically of the Colorado River.
The consolidated court cases are the outcome of a long-running dispute in which the Navajo Nation has contended its rights to access water from the lower Colorado River, which borders its reservation.
According to ScotusBlog, the Department of the Interior case will determine whether the federal government has a judicially enforceable duty to address the Navajo Nation’s need for water. The Arizona case allows the Navajo Nation’s claim to water from the Colorado River and considers older cases covering similar water rights claims.
According to the Navajo Nation, almost a third of the residents on the reservation do not have access to clean and reliable drinking water.
“When they established these reservations, that came with the promise that those lands would be permanent homelands for the tribe and their people,” Heather Tanana, a law professor at the University of Utah and a citizen of Navajo Nation, told NPR. “And I think everyone would agree you can’t have a homeland of any kind without water.”
Court justices seemed evenly split at the oral arguments, according to ScotusBlog. The topics of discussion included whether the request for relief would upset current allocations of the Colorado River, and whether the United States government’s assumption of control of tribal water rights established an enforceable right.
Read more about the Colorado River.