The Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s Colorado River allocation

Very little of the Colorado River’s water originates in New Mexico. The San Juan, one of the Colorado’s main tributaries, starts in the mountains of Colorado, cutting through a corner of the state’s northwest desert, before snaking into the canyon country of Arizona and Utah. Yet when the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact was signed in 1948, we were allocated a disproportionately large share of the river’s water.

Back in 2012 and 2013, while still a newspaper reporter, I took a deep dive into the history to try to understand why. It resulted in this:

It was 1948.

Fred Wilson, New Mexico’s representative to the interstate group working to divide up the waters of the Upper Colorado River Basin, was pleading.

“The state of New Mexico wants the Indians to be protected,” Wilson told the other commissioners at the gathering in Vernal, Utah. The federal government’s Office of Indian Affairs had estimated that future water needs for Navajo Nation lands within the state of New Mexico would be substantial. But no deal that did not set aside enough water for both Indian and non-Indian water users could win political approval in New Mexico, Wilson told the other negotiators.

Wilson got his way. The final Upper Colorado River Basin Compact gave New Mexico a large share of water compared with the state’s contributions to the big river’s flow.

New Mexico got the water, but seven decades later a group of non-Indians persist in fighting a rear guard action to try to prevent it from being allocated to New Mexico’s Navajo residents.

The issue has risen again, with a story today by my former colleague Mark Oswald about the latest attempt by Victor Marshall, the attorney for the non-Indian San Juan River water users, to try to invalidate a 2005 agreement finally acknowledging the Navajos’ entitlement to their share of the river’s water.

I spent months examining Marshall’s claims in detail. His legal claims are dubious, having failed repeatedly in court. His hydrologic claims are laughable, aimed at repeatedly exaggerating the size of the Navajo peoples’ share of the water in order to make it seem an unreasonably large share of the state’s water. See here for my attempt at a simple explanation.

But this is about more than law and hydrology. There is an implicitly racist element to this litigation – the implication that in allocating water to residents of the Navajo Nation it is being taken from New Mexicans. These people are New Mexicans. This is simply a legal recognition of water that is rightfully theirs.

New Mexico has an entitlement to this water under the Upper Basin Compact because we demanded it to meet the needs of, and legal obligations to, this group of New Mexicans. The “othering” here is a relic of a painful past.



  1. This ugly part of New Mexico’s history needs to be said. When public meetings were held in 2003 for the first State Water Plan, the most hateful comments I heard were voiced at the meeting in Farmington. In Gallup, the audience wanted to talk about how they got past this history. And their first step was to call out “the relic of ‘othering’ against the Navajo Nation”.

  2. Well said, John! So glad to have you point out that Navajos are New Mexican. I look forward to the conclusion of the attempt by a few to re-write history, painful as that history may be.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *