Turning tide: addressing water rights in Indigenous communities

Lani Tsinnajinnie knows that clean running water is not just essential for everyday life, but for future planning. As an assistant professor at UNM’s School of Architecture and Planning (SAP), the researcher brings unique perspective to an issue that’s been underserved by local, state and federal leaders: ensuring clean water infrastructure and accessibility to Native American communities.

“During the pandemic, there are instances where many entities came together to find immediate solutions for this issue,” said Tsinnajinnie. “But we’re not too sure how sustainable these quick responses will be and we shouldn’t expect our community members to rely on hauling water. That’s why collaborations between institutions are so important.”

Tsinnajinnie, who is of Diné and Filipino descent, has seen the extent of these issues and the impact consistent water access can have on Tribal communities. She was born and raised in New Mexico and her home community of Na’Neelzhiin lies in the eastern-most area of the Navajo Nation.

“One thing the Navajo Nation has done is that it’s worked collaboratively with different entities like nonprofits, other universities and some government agencies,” she said.

Those collaborations were ramped up quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted Native American communities at rates nearly 19 percent higher than other racial and ethnic groups. Although the efforts are a good start, they are the tip of the iceberg when comes to addressing environmental injustices in Native communities.

“I can speak more specifically to the issues being faced by the Navajo Nation,” said Tsinnajinnie. “Not all our water rights have been adjudicated or settled with the federal government. So, although tribal communities have senior water rights, the settlements are still tied up with state and federal entities.”

Her passion project is ensuring clean water for people living in Native communities, many of which do not have the resources, access, or infrastructure they need. These problems go back centuries. According to the Indian Water Rights Settlements report released by the Congressional Research Service in May 2020:

“In the second half of the 19th century, the federal government pursued a policy of confining Indian tribes to reservations. These reservations were either a portion of a tribe’s aboriginal land or an area of land taken out of the public domain and set aside for a tribe. The federal statutes and treaties reserving such land for Indian reservations typically did not address the water needs of these reservations, a fact that has given rise to questions and disputes regarding Indian reserved water rights.”

The report goes on to explain that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s policy is to resolve Indian water rights disputes through negotiated settlements, which could take years to complete.

The water rights issue is only one of several factors that are keeping Indigenous communities from being able to have consistent access to clean water. And while the settlements remain in flux, Native American households remain 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing.

But the partnerships and collaborative efforts stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic give hope that a swifter change could be on the horizon. Groups like the Navajo Water Project are finding community-based ways to get water to those who need it. And the COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group (WACG) is utilizing federal pandemic funding to identify, acquire, prioritize, and use available resources to increase access to quality water for tribal homes.

For researchers like Tsinnajinnie, these partnerships represent a turning of the tide. She says more Native students, leaders and community members are focusing on ways to protect water resources.

“Forming these partnerships allow us to assist Tribes and provide expertise they might not have. That includes funding or infrastructure for gathering water resources data,” she said. “But the help goes both ways, Tribes help support our academic institutions by providing ways for Native students to work on issues that are important to them while also bringing awareness to academic institutions and other students.”

“It’s not going to be like this forever. The communities want these changes and the youth are working toward making these changes happen,” she said. “As a community planner, I’m thinking more long term.”

Part of that long-term thinking means helping communities know the most sustainable and helpful ways to use the water once it’s delivered – from creating better infrastructure, to building more housing, to establishing gardens that ensure food sustainability.

With her recent appointment to the Navajo Nation Water Right Commission, Tsinnajinnie says she is eager to find ways to facilitate more research, teaching and mentorship opportunities in Navajo communities.

“A lot of this was inspired by wanting to help the Navajo Nation water rights get settled so that we can provide the water resources that are due to our Navajo communities,” she concluded.

Tsinnajinnie graduated from The University of New Mexico with degrees in Native American Studies and Environmental Science in 2007, and a Master of Water Resources in 2011. In 2019, she earned her Ph.D. in Hydrology from New Mexico Tech before coming back to join the SAP faculty at UNM. She now studies groundwater-surface water interactions and impacts of climate change, with an emphasis on mountainous water resources.

When she’s not teaching or conducting her research, she is mentoring Native American students and fostering an appreciation in them for social justice and water issues. Tsinnajinnie says mentoring Native students is one of the greatest benefits of being at UNM, especially when she’s also able to cross purpose her work with UNM Center for Water and Environment, UNM’S Grand Challenges-Water Resources Seed Grant and the UNM Advance Women in STEM.

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