Federal settlements give Colorado tribes a share of water right

Water has filled a massive new reservoir to the brim – the federal government’s first major project in 15 years that could help slake the arid West’s thirsts.

But the $513 million Nighthorse reservoir in south west Colorado will not supply any of the dozens of sprawling Western cities seeking water.

Instead, the 123,541 acre-feet of water stored here – more than Denver’s Cheesman and Gross reservoirs combined – belongs mostly to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes.

The project reflects a quiet but substantial shift of control over a crucial resource as the federal government tries to turn a new page with tribes.

Six recent water settlements have forced the government to commit $2.04 billion for dam, pipeline and reservoir projects – giving sovereign tribes from Montana to New Mexico control over 1.5 million acre-feet of new water each year.

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