The Gila River Indian Community has announced plans to conserve a large portion of its water supplies over the next three years and is seeking a payment from a new federal program designed to incentivize such reductions. This marks a reversal from an August announcement that the tribe would be withdrawing from conservation efforts.
The tribe will conserve up to 750,000 acre-feet over the next three years, which will serve to support congested Lake Mead.
Water levels in Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, are at record lows, and an imbalance between supply and demand along the Colorado River is driving them even lower. A two-decade mega-drought, fueled by climate change, has prompted urgent calls for water conservation in the arid Southwest, home to 40 million people.
Gila River benefits from a recently launched payments program by the Bureau of Reclamation, which manages water resources in the West.
The agency began submitting proposals for water user conservation plans a few months after the seven states that depended on the Colorado River failed to limit its use by a federal deadline. The federal government will pay these users — mostly farmers, many of them in central Arizona — $330 to $400 per acre-foot if they can explain how cuts will be made and metered. Those funds will come from the Inflation Reduction Act, of which $4 billion was earmarked for drought relief in the vast Colorado River Basin.
Colorado River water, supplied by the Central Arizona Project, is the largest single component of the Gila River Indian Community’s water rights.
Earlier this summer, the tribe withdrew from conservation deals, with Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis saying he was “shocked and disappointed” that other water users had declined to cooperate.
“We cannot continue to put everyone else’s interests ahead of our own when no other parties appear committed to the common goal of a cooperative basin-wide agreement,” he said in an August statement.
Farmers in lower basin states, including Arizona and California, proposed conservation measures that would pay them more than $1,000 per acre-foot from the Bureau of Reclamation.
Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, said the Gila River tribe is now resuming conservation because a price has been set for conserved water.
“Certainly there are rational financial decisions here,” Porter said. “But there is moral leadership here. In their view, there is a moral issue with water pricing and that different parties should get the same deal.”
Jason Hauter, an attorney representing the Gila River Indian Community, said the tribe has been heartened by a new conservation plan released by three Southern California water boards, a signal that “others are taking this crisis seriously or are trying to do something.” to do”.
Hauter, who is a member of the Gila River Community, said the tribe is also motivated by Reclamation shifting its efforts to funding long-term infrastructure projects, rather than just short-term water conservation payouts.
“We want to be good actors,” Lewis said. “We want to make sure the precious water supplies we have are directed to a sustainable solution.”
Porter said the tribe’s contributions include a significant amount of water. In comparison, three Southern California agencies responsible for some of the largest water allocations in the Colorado River Basin said they would save 400,000 acre-feet each year.
“The Gila River Indian community’s decision to offer to conserve significant amounts of water means we have a better opportunity to keep negotiations on track to get to the deal we need to get to,” he said Porter. “Changing the momentum and making a decision to move toward a settlement is a leadership move, and I would say sort of a morally positive move, because reaching a settlement is really critical for everyone who takes water from the Colorado.” share river. ”
The recent water conservation agreements come amid renegotiations of how the Colorado River should be partitioned throughout the basin. Current rules governing water use expire in 2026, and the seven states that use the river’s water are beginning to develop new policies.
As climate change has crippled the country’s largest reservoirs, a patchwork of short-term conservation agreements have emerged to prevent a disaster before 2026.
The Colorado River Basin includes 30 state-recognized Native American tribes. These tribes own rights to about a quarter of the river’s course, but have often been excluded from negotiations over the use of the river’s water. At the same time, tribal communities often do not have reliable access to clean water because infrastructure is aging and underinvested.
Tribes are calling for greater involvement as the basin prepares for negotiations through 2026. In August, the Gila River Indian Community was among 14 tribes who signed a letter saying they were “left in the dark” during midsummer conservation talks.
This story is part of ongoing Colorado River coverage produced by KUNC and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.