Solutions for Changing Climate: A Q&A with Amelia Flores

A Colorado River tribal leader seeks a voice in the river’s future — and freedom to profit from its water.

Winter 2024
Woman looks across Colorado River landscape in traditional garb

Amelia Flores, tribal chair of the Colorado River Indian Tribes

Dustin Woodel

As water interests in the Colorado River Basin prepare to negotiate a new set of operating guidelines for the drought-stressed river, Amelia Flores ’08 wants her Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to be involved in the discussion. More than that, she wants CRIT seated at the negotiating table with something invaluable to offer: its surplus water. 

Flores, who graduated from the University of Arizona with a master’s degree in linguistics, was recently named by Gov. Katie Hobbs to the Governor’s Water Policy Council. 

CRIT, whose reservation lands in California and Arizona are bisected by the Colorado River, has some of the most senior water rights on the river. But a federal law enacted in the late 1700s, decades before any southwestern state was even established, prevents most tribes from sending any water off their reservations. The restrictions mean CRIT, which holds the rights to nearly a quarter of the entire state of Arizona’s yearly allotment of river water, is missing out on financial gain and the chance to help its river partners. 

Flores, as CRIT’s tribal chair, is leading her tribe’s effort to persuade Congress to allow the tribe to lease or store its water off reservation lands like tribes in Arizona and other Colorado River Basin states with congressionally approved deals already can. If Congress grants the request by CRIT, Flores says, the tribe would offer water to aid struggling Arizona farmers and cities as well as wildlife restoration sites throughout the Lower Basin. The bill is pending in a U.S. Senate committee. 

CRIT is composed of members from four distinct ethnic groups, the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo tribes, and has set its sights on having a voice in renegotiation of operating guidelines for the Colorado River, which must be renewed by 2026. Flores, the first woman to serve as CRIT’s tribal chair, contends that the tribe has proven itself as a valuable partner by recently leaving water in Lake Mead to alleviate shortages. She hopes CRIT will finally have a voice in determining the river’s future, unlike previous negotiations that were crafted without tribal input. 

In an interview with Western Water, first published July 7, 2022, Flores explains CRIT’s cultural ties to the Colorado River, the proposed legislation and the need for tribes to play larger roles in the upcoming renegotiations. 

Q: You refer to the tribes as Aha Makhav, or people of the river. Can you talk briefly about the tribe’s historical relationship with and its cultural ties to the Colorado River? 

Our creator Mataviily created first the stars and the planets, and then, after he created the animals, he created the people. To go along with that, he created the river and laid aside the lands for us to live off of. The clan songs followed the river from Avii Kwa’ame, north of Laughlin, and the Newberry Mountain Range. That is our sacred mountain to the Mohave people. And not only to the Mohave but to the other tribes along the river. I can’t leave out the mountains. The mountains are very sacred to the Mohave people, and they all have names. As stewards of the land and of the river, our identity is in the land and the water. We are the river. 

Q: In December of 2020, you were elected by a wide margin to become the first female chair of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. What inspired you to run for the position and, as you said after the election, break the glass ceiling? 

It goes back to me serving the tribal membership for 29 years as the librarian and archivist. And during that time, I was mentored by the Mohave elders, and these were male elders, about the history and the culture of our tribe. The knowledge they passed on was inspiring, and I think that is part of me wanting to serve on the tribal council level. And so, it was just moving on to the next level (to become CRIT chair). Also, the passion that I have to serve and help my people is another part that inspired me to continue working for my people. 

With the trust and the support of the people, I was elected. It was their support and their vote that broke the glass ceiling, not me. I can provide a woman’s voice to the decisions and to the government. 

Q: Under your leadership, CRIT is pursuing federal legislation that would allow it to lease or store some of its Colorado River water off the reservation. How would the bill benefit the tribe and how does it fit into broader efforts to share water across the entire Lower Colorado River Basin? 

The CRIT Resiliency Act didn’t happen overnight. Our past tribal councils had been looking at how we could get more benefit out of, and authority over, our water. Over at least the last 20 years, other tribes in Arizona started getting their settlements. With their settlements, they’re able to lease their water that they use from the Colorado River. 

The act will benefit our sovereignty, the recognition of our sovereignty as the Colorado River Indian Tribes. Also, from being able to lease — not sell, but lease — our water, there are financial benefits that will provide for our people, provide for the services, provide for our government, our employees and also it will provide funds to repair our irrigation system. 

This bill is just another solution to saving the river and keeping water in Lake Mead, which we have been doing all along. We’ve kept over 200,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mead through the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. We have shown and proven ourselves as CRIT that we do want to be part of the solution. We have first priority and the oldest priority water rights, so when shortages and cuts are being made as the levels go down in Lake Mead, the Central Arizona Project (CAP) will be cut. But with our bill, we can make water available for delivery through the CAP canal and keep that infrastructure going. We can provide a drought supply if the bill is passed. 

Q: Looking ahead, what sort of role might CRIT and other tribal groups play in the discussions about the next set of river operating guidelines, which must be finalized by 2026? What are some of CRIT’s main priorities heading into these renegotiations?

 I can only speak for CRIT, not for the other tribes. But we all should play equal roles to the states in these discussions. Each tribe is vital, and for so long we’ve been left out of the discussions; we’ve been left out of when plans are developed. With the drought and given the conditions [on the river], we are now being invited to the table, which has been a wake-up call for the Bureau of Reclamation and the United States. We’re all sovereign; we all have our own water rights. But ultimately the United States has its obligations to protect our resources — and that’s not only water but other resources, like land for the individual tribes. 

I think we need to remain vigilant. We need to hold the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government to their policies. And I believe that through negotiation and being at the table, we have a better chance of holding them accountable. We don’t ever want to go back to 10 years, even five years ago when we weren’t consulted. 

Q: What is your greatest concern with the Colorado River, especially given the drought? 

My concern is that there’s a risk the Colorado River could stop flowing if the megadrought continues. Although we would be the last to be cut, it would greatly impact our tribal government and our services to the people. It would impact our environment and the habitat preservation we have going on at the Ahakhav Preserve. I’m hanging on to hope that we have a change in our climate, but there’s a possibility that no water could be flowing along the banks of the river. 

Q: CRIT in recent years has participated in the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and done things like fallow farmland in order to help avoid shortages elsewhere in the Lower Colorado River Basin. Do you think the federal government and the other river users will recognize and credit CRIT’s cooperation and actions during the renegotiation process? 

Oh yes. With the 200,000 acre-feet of water that we’ve already left in Lake Mead, I don’t think they could overlook us anymore and what we have contributed. And we are now in a relationship with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and also CAP. So, in developing those relationships over the years, they see us as a vital part of saving the river. 

This interview was first published in Western Water, a publication of the Western Water Education Foundation.

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