In my literature class last winter, we read The Water Knife, a dystopian future book centered around water rights in the American southwest. A central plot point of this book was for the protagonist to get his hands on the water rights of the Pima Indians, as they were the most senior rights and would enable him to get water. CAP water was the alternative, and in the book, it was impossible to secure CAP water, even if it was contracted out to a group. When I realized on one of our first classes that the Tohono O’odham were ancestrally connected to the Pima, I was really excited to talk about water rights and see how much truth there was in The Water Knife.
I was surprised by the in-depth legal research that the author must have done to cover the complicated issue that is water rights. However, our class readings made it clear that he certainly simplified the issue. In the book, there was not really a discussion of the complication of transferring water rights, especially not regarding the Pima rights. The resolution of the plot, when the protagonist acquired the rights, had no mention of how he, a non-American Indian, was expected to use the rights granted to the Pima tribe. In our readings, we saw how difficult and expensive water rights transfers can be, and the limitations that are placed on American Indian tribes selling their rights off the reservation.
It is understandable that the author didn’t go into detail about the legal processes required to transfer water rights, as it was a fiction book intended to be enjoyable, not a legal brief. The book still raises some interesting questions. At first reading, it made me wonder what the future of water would be in America. Now, after taking this course, it makes me wonder what role American Indian water rights will play as water becomes increasingly scarce. It is not illogical to think that as other resources are depleted, the incentive to allow sale of American Indian rights will increase. At a certain point, it will likely be in the best interest of companies to lobby for the ability to purchase American Indian water rights. At a certain point, as scarcity increases, the price these companies are willing to pay will make it in the best interest of the tribes to sell their water rights. When these two points meet, things could get really interesting.
I certainly hope that in coming years we can reduce water consumption, or make water usage more efficient, so that this point is never reached in our lifetimes. However, it is a little too idealistic to say it will never be reached. Water is scarce, and that scarcity is precarious. If it does increase to the point where other resources are no longer viable options, it will be interesting to see what role American Indian water rights play.