PHOENIX, Ariz. (AP) - An Arizona Native American tribe reached an agreement with the U.S. Government on Thursday to not use some of their Colorado River water rights for $150 million in exchange for funding and a pipeline.
The agreement with the Gila River Indian Community for $233 million, announced in Phoenix was hailed by many as an example of how cooperation is needed to save a river that is vital to the agricultural industry in the West and to the livelihoods of more than 40 millions people living in seven states in the Western U.S. and Mexico. Officials called it 'compensated conservancy'
The move is part of an effort to convince states that depend on the Colorado River, to reduce their water consumption in light of a continuing drought that has caused reservoirs to dry up dramatically including Lake Mead at Hoover Dam.
Tommy Beaudreau, Deputy Secretary of Interior of the United States, said: 'Today’s announcements and partnerships with tribes such as the Gila River Indian Community show that tribes play a crucial role in the solution.' We have no more important partners than Indian Country in this effort.
Colorado River users submitted proposals for some of the money by leaving fields unplanted. Some cities have ripped up decorative grass that is thirsty, while tribes and large water agencies have left water in reservoirs voluntarily or mandated.
The Interior Department, aside from the Gila River announcement has not shared many details on how it intends to divide up the remaining $4 billion. This includes how much of that money will be allocated to the agricultural interests within the Imperial Irrigation district in California.
According to a government document released along with the announcement on Thursday, the Biden Administration plans to spend approximately $15.4 billion for infrastructure improvements, inflation reductions, and drought-related projects throughout the West.
The Gila River Tribe will receive $83 million to build a pipeline to reuse approximately 20,000 acre feet (25 million cubic metres) of water each year. They will also get $50 million per annum over three years to not use the 125,000 acre feet (154 million cu meters) of stored water at Lake Mead. This is part of an effort to encourage Colorado River water users reduce their water consumption.
A foot-acre of water can cover an acre (1,233 cubic meters) of land with a depth of 1 foot. This is about the amount of water needed to supply two households on average per year.
Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis pointed out in a press release that a third agreement provided a grant from the federal government for a solar-covered project.
Lewis stated that "These three agreements represent the future of how we will work together in order to face the urgency of the moment. "... We must find, encourage and fund innovative solutions which have a lasting impact on the Colorado River."
The announcement on Thursday comes just days before the Bureau of Reclamation - the federal agency responsible for controlling water flows in the Colorado River Basin - is expected to announce plans to reduce water use by all seven states of the Colorado River basin -- Arizona, California Nevada, Colorado Utah, New Mexico, and Wyoming.
Mexico gets another 1.5 million acres-feet per year (1.9 billion cubic metres). The combined allocation is 15 million acre feet (18.5 billion cubic meter) for the states. Camille Touton, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Commissioner last year, called on states to reduce their use by up to 4,000,000 acre-feet (4.95 billion cubic meters).
Gila River Tribe, on the other hand, receives 653,000 acre feet (805 million cubic metres) of land per year. It has committed to giving up approximately one-fifth until 2025.
According to a policy paper published by the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado in 2021, 22 of the 30 federally recognized tribes of the Colorado River Basin have acknowledged rights to up to 3.2 millions acre-feet (3,9 billion cubic meters) of water annually, or 26% of the current flow of the river basin.
The study by the Center for Water Resources said that data shows that the river flow has been overestimated in the past 100 years, but it has declined due to droughts since 2000 to 12.4 million acre feet (15.3 billion cubic metres) per year.
Officials have said that a series of exceptional wet winter storms, which swept in from the Pacific Ocean and into California and the West earlier this year, will not be sufficient to end a megadrought scientists describe as the worst for 1,200 years. This dry spell has raised concerns that hydropower stations could dry up and that water deliveries to farms could cease.
In its fact sheet, the Interior Department stated that despite recent heavy rainfall and snowfall, the historic drought of 23 years has resulted in record-low water levels at Lake Powell, and Lake Mead.
The announcement was made in Phoenix as part of a series by officials of the Biden administration, including a Wednesday appearance where they announced plans to spend 585 million dollars on 83 projects, including dams and canals in 11 states. The announcement was made in Yuma, Arizona at the Imperial Dam, where more than $8 Million is expected to be spent.
Coachella Valley in California will also receive $36 million under Reclamation’s Lower Colorado River Basin System Conservation and Efficiency Program. The main water district of that region has promised to conserve 37 million cubic meters (30,000 acre feet) of water at Lake Mead.
A further $20 million has been pledged to water storage projects, both in Utah and California. This includes the Salton Sea - a dried inland lake that was formed in 1905 when the Colorado River overflowed.
In 1999, the combined capacity of Lake Mead at the Nevada-Arizona border and Lake Powell created by Glen Canyon Dam along the Arizona-Utah border was 92%. Today, the reservoirs are less than 30%.