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Throughout the history of the American West, water issues have shown their ability to both unite and divide communities. As an imbalance between water supplies and demands grows in the region, KUNC is committed to covering the stories that emerge.

Arizona tribe will receive millions in federal payouts for water conservation

Water enters a canal full of water through an orange pipe in a desert environment.
Ted Wood
/
The Water Desk
Water enters an irrigation canal on the Gila River Indian Reservation on May 7, 2021. The Gila River Indian Community will receive $50 million each year in exchange for water it conserves. That water will be used to help boost levels in Lake Mead, the nation's largest reservoir.

The federal government will send up to $233 million to the Gila River Indian Community for water conservation. The tribe is among the first to receive federal payouts as part of a program to incentivize water cutbacks in Arizona, California and Nevada. Those three states make up the Colorado River’s Lower Basin, where water use remains steady in spite of shrinking reserves.

The Gila River Indian Community will conserve 125,000 acre-feet of water and receive $50 million from the Inflation Reduction Act in exchange. The tribe has the option to do so again in 2024 and 2025, receiving another $50 million in each additional year. That water will stay in Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, where historically-low water levels threaten hydropower production within the Hoover Dam, and have raised concerns about the reservoir’s long-term ability to provide water to millions of people in cities such as Phoenix, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

Those payments would break down to $400 per acre-foot of water. An acre-foot is the amount of water needed to fill one acre of land to a height of one foot. One acre-foot generally provides enough water for one to two households for a year.

The tribe will also receive $83 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to expand water reuse efforts. It will fund a reclaimed water pipeline that, when completed, will add up to 20,000 acre-feet annually for system conservation with a minimum of 78,000 acre-feet committed to remain Lake Mead.

The Gila River Indian Community is one of 30 federally recognized tribes that use water from the Colorado River, and among the most prominent tribal voices in the regional conversations about water use.

“We want to be good actors,” said Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis in October, when the tribe first announced its intent to conserve water. “We want to make sure that the precious water supplies we have, that it's going to go to a sustainable solution.”

Water levels in Lake Mead sit low near Hoover Dam on December 16, 2021. As climate change shrinks reserves, state and federal governments have assembled a patchwork of short-term conservation agreements to chip away at demand and boost the nation's largest reservoirs.
Alex Hager
/
KUNC
Water levels in Lake Mead sit low near Hoover Dam on December 16, 2021. As climate change shrinks reserves, state and federal governments have assembled a patchwork of short-term conservation agreements to chip away at demand and boost the nation's largest reservoirs.

Sarah Porter, director of the Kyl Center for Water Policy at Arizona State University, cautioned that funding sent to the Gila River Indian Community is not necessarily indicative that the federal water conservation program is working at a broader level.

“It doesn't say as much as we might hope,” Porter said, “Because this program is competing with current commodity prices. I have asked a few growers who have the opportunity to participate if they will, and it's clear that the high price of different agricultural commodities is getting in the way. The Gila River Indian Community is in a unique position to participate.”

Porter also said this abnormally wet winter will give a short-term boost to reserves throughout the Southwest and has removed some of the “moral imperative” to conserve water, but said more cutbacks are still needed to help Lake Mead.

Current guidelines for the Colorado River are set to expire in 2026, and states are expected to negotiate a new set of rules for how it’s shared. As climate change shrinks supplies, state and federal governments have assembled a patchwork of short-term conservation agreements to chip away at demand and prevent catastrophe before then.

The 30 tribes which use the Colorado River hold rights to about a quarter of its 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 prepares for pre-2026 negotiations. Last 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 water in the West, produced by KUNC in Colorado and supported by the Walton Family Foundation. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial coverage.

Alex is KUNC's reporter covering the Colorado River Basin. He spent two years at Aspen Public Radio, mainly reporting on the resort economy, the environment and the COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, he covered the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery for KDLG in Dillingham, Alaska.
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