World Insights: Native American tribe facing severe fallout from record drought in SW U.S.

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Xinhua, August 2, 2022
Adjust font size:

by Peter Mertz

DENVER, the United States, Aug. 1 (Xinhua) -- Mother Nature stands poised to do something in 30 years that the federal government could not do in over a century -- remove a Native American tribe from its ancestral lands forever.

"It is heartbreaking, terrible, scary. What we need is no longer there," Ute Mountain Ute irrigation manager Michael Vicenti told The Denver Post, while looking at a diminishing water supply and an annual reduction in corn output that keeps the tribe alive.

Each evening he calls operators of McPhee Reservoir to set the flow into a 39-mile clay canal, the Utes' only source of water, and makes a difficult choice -- either he saves scarce water or he saves corn, the daily reported.

Water levels at McPhee are "50-feet (15.24-meter) below normal," San Juan National Forest officials told Xinhua on Friday, adding even with the weekend's monsoon rains that upped that level up to 47 feet (14.33 meters), it will take "years of heavy monsoons and heavy winter snowpack" to offset a record drought that scientists say is the worst in 1,200 years.

The record drought and pending doom are most noticeable at the country's largest reservoirs, especially Lakes Powell and Mead, now in critical condition with historically low water levels that threaten power and drinking water supplies for seven states and at least 40 million people.

In the southwest corner of Colorado, these harsh conditions have pushed the original owners of these vast lands, the Utes, to the brink of extinction.

They were once one of the dominant Native American tribes in the west, whose ancestors lived in a vast area that included Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the Utes were forced away from their land at gunpoint that their ancestors had inhabited for thousands of years, and "forced in the 19th Century onto some of North America's harshest land, high desert southwest of Cortez, with limited access to water."

These Utes were moved into a 7,700-acre (3,116.08-hectare) reservation and settled the town of Towaoc, where today some 2,200 registered Ute Mountain Utes reside, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (USCB). The town is located less than 15 miles (24 km) west of the famous Mesa Verde National Park, where more than half a million people visit each year.

But it is unlikely that many of the national park visitors have made the trip to Towaoc, accessible by a 30-mile (48-km) road, where residents live in rundown buildings, many streets are unpaved, and where the average income is 12,330 U.S. dollars a year per person and 25 percent of households live in poverty, according to USCB data.

When the Ute Nation once ranged across millions of acres of land, they dealt with droughts by migrating into nearby areas where farming was more feasible and game more plentiful. But today, these places are occupied by private ranches and farms, shopping centers, housing developments, or belong to the U.S. Forest Service or Department of the Interior.

Even 30 years ago, the Utes living beneath Ute Mountain had to backpack down from the high mountains each winter in the snow for irrigation and drinking, according to tribal leaders.

In the late 1970s, at the behest of local white ranchers and farmers, Ute leaders traveled to Washington to convince the Carter administration's reluctant Interior Department to build McPhee Reservoir, a 500-million-U.S.-dollar project that included the 39-mile (63-km) canal to irrigate nearby properties.

But the Feds classified the Utes as "not an agrarian tribe -- they were hunters and gatherers," and thus limited the tribe's allocation of water and chance for economic growth.

Even today, "the Ute annual allocation of reservoir water remains relatively low in the region. Tribal negotiators had to give up senior water rights on rivers, and they were not able to gain priority for reservoir water during dry times," the Post report noted.

Ute leaders would like to see water allocation agreements revisited in what has become a deal killer for the tribe's ability to eke out a living on land already severely challenged, existing in a high-elevation desert climate zone.

Water releases from McPhee have been reduced in six of the past nine years, according to Ken Curtis with the Dolores Water Conservancy District (DWCD) and more reductions are expected in the coming years.

DWCD officials did not respond to a Xinhua request on how the water quantity allocations are made, if allotments can be adjusted, and why the Utes pay DWCD 500,000 dollars a year for the water.

"Dry times led reservoir operators to cut the Utes' water to 10 percent of their allotment last year and 25 percent this year," Simon Martinez, general manager of Ute Mountain Ute Farm and Ranch Enterprises (UMUFRE) told the Post, and that "only 13 of the tribe's 110 center pivot irrigation sprinklers can run."

Ute farming operations once covered 7,700 acres (3,116.08 hectares) and now are only 1,000 acres (404.69 hectares) planted. But a modern corn mill built in 2014 allows the tribe to eke out a living selling "Native American Grown whole grain Non-GMO" and other sales to whiskey distilleries, health-oriented grocery stores and other retailers, according to UMUFRE data.

"Even with limited water, the Utes are navigating record dry times. A combination of alfalfa hay sales, far less than in the past, and mill production has proved economically sustainable," the Post noted, an assertion hard to fathom.

The highest-paid workers living in Towaoc work at the mill and make 20,000 dollars a year, while the average income has hovered around 12,000 dollars a year for a decade, USCB data said. But the mill has big expenses, from water, to insurance, to maintaining state-of-the-art factory production equipment, Martinez noted, with nothing looming as deadly to the tribe's survival as water scarcity.

Always optimistic, Martinez told the Post that "being able to sell corn meal products at low volumes when possible in Sprouts and Trader Joe's markets could make a big difference," he said.

Ute tribal leaders disagree, and say that in the future, expected water cuts could cripple the mill -- the only lifeline left for the tribe's economic survival. Enditem

Follow on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.
ChinaNews App Download
Print E-mail Bookmark and Share

Go to Forum >>0 Comment(s)

No comments.

Add your comments...

  • User Name Required
  • Your Comment
  • Enter the words you see:   
    Racist, abusive and off-topic comments may be removed by the moderator.
Send your storiesGet more from