Tribe, US officials agree to save Colorado River waters

Another $20 million has been committed for water storage projects in Utah and California.

(Matt York | AP File Photo) Water from the Colorado River, diverted by the Central Arizona Project, fills an irrigation canal in Maricopa, Ariz. on Thursday, August 18, 2022. A Native American tribe in Arizona has reached a deal with the US government not to use some of their Colorado River water rights in exchange for $150 million and funding for a pipeline project.

phoenix • A Native American tribe in Arizona reached an agreement with the US government on Thursday not to use some of its Colorado River water rights in exchange for $150 million and funding for a pipeline project.

Announced in Phoenix, the $233 million pact with the Gila River Indian Community was hailed as an example of the kind of collaboration needed to save a river that supports massive agricultural industry and serves more than 40 million people in… seven western US states and vital is Mexico. Officials called it “compensated conservation.”

It’s part of a broader effort to get states that depend on the Colorado River to significantly reduce their water use amid a prolonged drought that has dramatically dried up reservoirs, including Lake Mead behind the Hoover Dam.

“Today’s announcements and our partnerships with tribes like the Gila River Indian Community prove that tribes are a key element of the solutions,” said US Assistant Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau. “We have no more important partners in this effort than Indian Country.”

The federal government has previously pledged about $4 billion for drought relief, and Colorado River users have submitted proposals to receive some of that money through actions like field abandonment. Some cities are uprooting thirsty ornamental grass, and tribes and major water boards have left some water behind in key reservoirs — either by choice or by order.

Beyond the Gila River announcement, the Interior Department has shared few details about how it plans to allocate the remainder of the $4 billion, including how much will go to agricultural interests in California’s vast Imperial Irrigation District.

(Matt York | AP Photo) Stephen Roe Lewis, Governor of India’s Gila River community, speaks to a backdrop of federal, state and local officials Thursday, April 6, 2023, at the Capitol in Phoenix. Lewis spoke about the newly announced water conservation funding for the Gila River Indian Community and water users throughout the Colorado River Basin aimed at protecting the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River System.

Overall, the Biden administration plans to spend about $15.4 billion approved by Congress to improve infrastructure and lower inflation on drought-related projects across the West, according to a government fact sheet that was released with Thursday’s announcement.

The Gila River Tribe will receive $83 million for the pipeline project to reuse approximately 20,000 acre-feet (25 million cubic meters) of water per year and $50 million per year over three years to recycle 125,000 acre-feet (154 million cubic yards of not to be used) per year of water currently being stored at Lake Mead. The latter is part of a broader effort to encourage Colorado River water users to significantly reduce their water use.

One acre of water is enough to cover one acre of land 1 foot (1,233 cubic meters) deep, or about enough to power two average homes per year.

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis also pointed to a third pact in a statement that would provide a federal grant for a solar-covered canal project.

“Taken together, these three agreements represent a future for how we can work together to meet the urgency of this moment,” said Lewis, “…to find, nurture and fund innovative solutions that will have a long-term impact on the.” Colorado River.”

Thursday’s announcement comes days before the Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that controls water flow on the river, is expected to make plans for all seven Colorado River basin states – Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming – sketching will use less water.

The states are collectively allocated 18.5 billion cubic meters (15 million acres) per year, and Mexico is allocated an additional 1.9 billion cubic meters (1.5 million acres). US Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton last year urged states to collectively save up to 4 million acre-feet (4.9 billion cubic meters) of use, but the number has proven elusive.

The Gila River Tribe, by comparison, is allotted 653,000 acre feet (805 million cubic meters) per year. She committed to forgoing about a fifth of her allotment by 2025.

Overall, 22 out of 30 state-recognized tribes in the Colorado River drainage basin have recognized rights to 3.2 million acre-feet (3.9 billion cubic meters) annually, or up to 26% of the drainage basin’s current annual flow, according to a 2021 policy paper the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado.

The data shows that the river’s flow was overestimated 100 years ago and has declined to about 12.4 million acre-feet (15.3 billion cubic meters) per year since the 2000 drought, the center’s study said.

Officials said an extraordinary series of wet winter storms that have swept from the Pacific Ocean to California and the West this year will not be enough to break a mega-drought that scientists are calling the worst in 1,200 years. The dry spell has raised concerns that hydroelectric power plants could be out of action and water supplies to farms that grow crops for the rest of the nation could be cut off.

“Despite recent heavy rain and snow, the historic 23-year drought has resulted in record low water levels at Lake Powell and Lake Mead,” the Home Department said in its briefing.

The announcement in Phoenix was part of a series of appearances by Biden administration officials, including one Wednesday outlining plans to spend $585 million on 83 projects, including dams, canals and water systems in 11 states. This announcement was made at the Imperial Dam in Yuma, Arizona, which is said to receive more than $8 million.

Officials also said $36 million promised under Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program will go to California’s Coachella Valley. The Main Water District in that region pledged to save 37 million cubic feet of water in Lake Mead.

Another $20 million was pledged for water storage projects in Utah and California, including on the Salton Sea, a drying up lake formed when the Colorado River flooded in 1905.

Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona state line and Lake Powell, formed by Glen Canyon Dam on the Arizona-Utah line, had a combined utilization rate of 92% in 1999. Today it is less than 30%.


Ritter reported from Las Vegas.

Justin Scaccy

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