FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – At a time when many cities and states in the West are grappling over water, a south-central Arizona Native American community has found itself in the enviable position of having rights to more water than it can use.
The Gila River Indian Community established along the Gila River faced severe water shortages after the river was dammed upstream in the 1920s. But in 2004, after a decades-long battle, it acquired enough water through one of the largest-ever Native American water-rights settlements to fill nearly 313,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools each year.
The reservation has been storing some of the water underground and is positioned to sell it to nearby desert cities. It also has high hopes of reviving its once-thriving agricultural tradition – with small family farms and cash crops such as alfalfa and cotton – to become Arizona’s breadbasket.
Concrete canals are forming across the reservation to supplement a network of earthen trenches used by ancestors of the Pima and Maricopa tribes for farming, but the infrastructure isn’t expected to be complete until 2029.
Rather than lose the water the community fought hard to obtain, it has turned to leasing some of it in the Phoenix area and selling long-term storage credits that it will use to help finance the extension and maintenance of its canal system.
“We have the settlement, but we want to be able to use the water for future generations,” said Jason Hauter, a tribal member and attorney for the community.
About half of the community’s 653,000 acre-feet of water from the settlement is delivered through the Central Arizona Project, making Gila River the largest customer statewide with 311,800 acre-feet per year. The community at one point claimed more than 2 million acre-feet of water that represented the entire flow of the Gila River, which runs from the mountains of southwestern New Mexico across the high deserts and through the heart of Arizona.
But the claim that was supported by an early priority date and historical usage was seen as a huge threat to water supplies in Arizona’s major metropolitan areas. The Gila River community settled for less in exchange for the federal government largely footing the bill for the canal system.
The community recently partnered with a utility that had been among its chief adversaries during the settlement negotiations – the Salt River Project – to figure out how to best use its excess water and re-create parts of the river on the reservation.
About 41,000 acre-feet per year of the CAP water is being leased to nearby communities, and the tribal community will make another 30,000 acre-feet of the same water source available for 100-year leases. It also has committed to storing 2 million acre-feet over 20 years to create the storage credits.
The Gila River Indian Community so far has stored enough water to create 450,000 acre-feet of credits that it can use itself or sell to municipal and industrial water providers or other users. The company it formed with an Arizona utility, Gila River Water Storage LLC, has made one sale of 5,000 acre-feet.
The water is being stored in a groundwater saving facility, which means surface water is delivered instead of being pumped through the ground, resulting in storage credits. In the future, the tribal community could allow water to seep into the ground through a riparian project and recharge aquifers – another way of developing credits.
The community turned to the Salt River Project for expertise on its water plans. As a result, SRP will be first in line for those credits – up to 100,000 acre-feet of water – which it sees as an insurance policy it can cash in on when its surface supplies run low because of prolonged drought.
“We’re getting to that point where folks in central Arizona need an alternative water supply, and this can be that water supply,” said Dave Roberts of the Salt River Project.
Arizona uses up to 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year and has about 8 million acre-feet in underground storage and groundwater savings facilities that comes from Central Arizona Project allocations and reclaimed water, said Sandra Fabritz-Whitney, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources. The challenge in Arizona has been to get water to population centers where it’s needed.
Barbara Cosens, a professor at the University of Idaho College of Law, said the Gila River Indian Community’s storage of water underground is somewhat unique and related to the opportunity and its position in Arizona.
“A number of tribes have settlements that allow for the marketing of water but many are in areas where the demand for that water is probably some point well into the future,” she said. “So in that respect, Gila is also unique.”
About 14,000 people make their home on the Gila River Indian reservation south of Phoenix. Since the river was diverted to create the Coolidge Dam, tribal members have seen nothing but flood flows running through the normally dry river bed.
“Everything revolved around the river, all the settlements are around the river,” said Rod Lewis, the community’s general counsel at the time of the settlement. “To see it dry up and the river diverted away from the reservation was an economic blow but also a psychological blow to the community. But we survived, and we’re recovering.”
Farming hasn’t completely died out but has been reduced from what it was historically. The reservation still has about 35,000 acres of farms on which the tribal government, families and independent operators grow melons, pistachios, citrus, fruit and other crops. The plan is to slowly add acreage as the canal system expands, eventually irrigating about one-fourth of the 372,000-acre reservation.
The work will take time, considering the federal government didn’t provide the entire project funding when the settlement was enacted. Instead, the Gila River Indian Community receives about $20 million a year and must finance the maintenance of the irrigation system itself, Lewis said.
Lewis envisions endless fields of cotton, alfalfa and corn, along with smaller gardens where families can grow fresh fruit and vegetables. He hopes to see the tribes return to their agricultural roots and reduce what has been one of the highest rates of diabetes worldwide. Elder tribal members recall when the Gila River flowed freely through the reservation and will get a semblance of that with planned riparian habitat and wetlands, but younger generations have no sense of what it’s like to be farmers.
“Farming is hard work and, for some people, it’s going to be difficult to integrate their lives into an agricultural farming life,” Lewis said. “But I think there’s strong, strong interest in doing so. And now that we have water, we can do so.”