An Arizona tribal community is selling the feds water from Lake Mead
The Gila River Indian Community announced plans to conserve a large portion of its water supplies over the next three years. The tribe is seeking payment from a new federal program designed to incentivize reductions in water use. This marks a reversal from an August announcement that it would pull out of conservation efforts.
The tribal community in Arizona will conserve up to 750,000 acre-feet over the next three years. That water will be used to help prop up Lake Mead.
Water levels in the nation’s largest reservoir are at record lows, and a supply-demand imbalance along the Colorado River is driving them even lower. A two-decade-long megadrought, fueled by climate change, has prompted urgent calls for water conservation around the arid Southwest.
Gila River is taking advantage of a recently-launched payment program from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The agency began fielding proposals for conservation plans from water users a few months after states that rely on the Colorado River failed to cut back usage by a federal deadline. The federal government will pay those users — mainly farmers — between $330-$400 per acre-foot if they can explain how they will make and measure cutbacks. Those funds will come out of the Inflation Reduction Act, $4 billion of which was designated for drought mitigation in the Colorado River basin.
When the Gila River Indian Community pulled out of conservation agreements earlier this summer, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said he was “shocked and disappointed” to see other water users shying away from cooperation.
“We cannot continue to put the interests of all others above our own when no other parties seem committed to the common goal of a cooperative basin-wide agreement,” he said in an August statement.
Growers in lower basin states, such as Arizona and California, were proposing conservation measures in which they would receive upwards of $1,000 per acre-foot.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said Gila River is now resuming conservation because there is a set price tag on conserved water.
“Certainly, there's rational financial decision-making here,” Porter said. “But there is a moral leadership here. From their perspective, there's a moral issue about how water is priced and that different parties should be getting the same deal.”
Jason Hauter, a lawyer representing the Gila River Indian Community, said the tribe was encouraged by a new conservation plan released by three water agencies in Southern California, a signal that “others were taking this crisis seriously or trying to do something.” Hauter, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, said the tribe was also motivated by Reclamation shifting its efforts toward funding long-term infrastructure projects, and not just short-term payouts for water conservation.
“We want to be good actors,” said Governor Stephen Roe Lewis. “We want to make sure that the precious water supplies we have, that it's going to go to a sustainable solution.”
Porter, with Arizona State University, said the tribe’s contributions involve a “significant” amount of water. By comparison, three agencies in Southern California, which account for some of the largest water allocations in the Colorado River basin, said they would conserve 400,000 acre-feet each year.
“The Gila River Indian Community deciding to offer to conserve substantial amounts of water means that we have a better opportunity to keep negotiations on track to get to the deal that we need to get to,” Porter said. “Shifting the momentum and making a decision to move in the direction of getting to a deal is a leadership move, and I would say kind of a morally positive move, because getting to a deal is really critical for everyone who shares Colorado River water.”
Recent water conservation agreements are set against the backdrop of basin-wide renegotiations for how the Colorado River is shared. Current rules for water use are set to expire in 2026, and the seven states that use the river’s water are beginning the process of drawing up new guidelines.
As climate change has crippled the nation’s largest reservoirs, a patchwork of short-term conservation agreements has emerged to prevent catastrophe before 2026.
The Colorado River basin includes 30 federally-recognized Indian tribes. Those tribes hold rights to about a quarter of the river's flow, but have often been excluded from negotiations about how the river’s water is used. At the same time, tribal communities often lack reliable access to clean water due to aging infrastructure and a history of underinvestment.
Tribes are calling for greater inclusion as the basin gears up for negotiations leading up to 2026. In August, The Gila River Indian Community was among the 14 tribes that signed a letter saying they had been left “in the dark” during midsummer conservation talks.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
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