Bowers still wants hearing on water bill that may derail drought plan

By: - February 15, 2019 2:15 pm

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

House Speaker Rusty Bowers plans to continue to move forward with water legislation despite threats by the Gila River Indian Community to leave a seven-state drought plan if that legislation because of it.

If the Gila River Indian Community holds true to its statement and refuses to sign any agreements it could ultimately derail the deal as the federal government’s March deadline approaches.

The legislation, House Bill 2476, would eliminate provisions that allows the tribe to claim Gila River water that has not been used for five years.

The Gila River Indian Community is opposed to the bill and announced on Thursday that, because of HB1476, it won’t sign Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan.

“Unless the Arizona legislature rejects the bad water policy reflected in HB 2476, the Community will not sign any agreements necessary for the AZ DCP Implementation plan,” Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis of the Gila River Indian Community said on Twitter.

The Gila River Indian Community plays a pivotal role in the DCP because it’s legally entitled to about a fourth of the water that passes through the Central Arizona Project, and the tribe has committed to kicking back some of that water to make the deal work. Now that agreement would be in jeopardy.

Matt Specht, a spokesman for the speaker, said Bowers, R-Mesa, still plans for his bill to be heard on Tuesday in the House Natural Resources, Energy and Water Committee.

In an emailed statement to the Mirror, Bowers said his legislation has nothing to do with the Drought Contingency Plan, and said it’s unfortunate that the tribe is using the plan as leverage to defeat an unrelated bill. He also said the HB2476 doesn’t affect previous or pending legislation, which was another concern that tribe expressed.

As myself and other legislators traveled around the state educating ourselves on Arizona’s water needs, we were made aware that dozens of rural families are being financially destroyed by ongoing litigation brought by the Gila River Indian Community,” Bowers said about his bill in a statement emailed to the Mirror. “It has nothing to do with the DCP or the water supply for the Community, who will not receive one drop of water from their lawsuits.”

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office would not comment on the Gila River Indian Community’s withdrawal from the Drought Contingency Plan or Bowers’s legislation. Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said only that the governor is working with other Colorado River basin states to get federal enabling legislation passed for the drought plan, and said the administration is committed to seeing it through, but said nothing about the new threat the plan.

House Democrats sided with the Gila River Indian Community in the dispute.

“It is absolutely unfathomable that the Speaker would go out of his way to provoke one of our most vital partners in a delicately negotiated Drought Contingency Plan and threaten to undermine Gila River Indian Community water rights that were settled over 15 years ago,” House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, said in a press statement. “I don’t know what the Speaker hopes to accomplish with this. But if it’s federal control of our drought contingency measures and the destruction of our Central Arizona agriculture economy, it looks like he’s on the verge of getting it.”

HB2476 would eliminate provisions in the law that allow the tribe to claim Gila River water that has not been used for up to five years. Under current law, owners of water that ceases or fails to use the water for five successive years lose their rights to it.  In those cases, the water reverts back to being public, allowing for it to be appropriated by communities like GRIC.

Lewis warned the Arizona Department of Water Resources last month about the tribe’s concerns in a letter obtained by the Arizona Republic.

“As I have noted on many occasions, the Community is the one of the only, if not the only, entity that would be better off financially if DCP were not to move forward,” Lewis said in the letter. “Our commitment to DCP, therefore, has been premised on the Community’s perception of its role as an accepted and integrated member of the broader Arizona economic and political community.”

Lewis went on to state that the tribe was not part of the discussion on the bill, leading it to feel like it wasn’t a partner at all.

A major reason for GRIC’s opposition has to do with litigation they’ve been involved in for the past 10 years.

The community had been seeking  to reclaim water that had not been used by users in the Upper Gila River basin since 2008, which led to lawsuits that ended up in the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Ultimately, the court sided with the tribe, stating that it was following Arizona water forfeiture laws. The community even stopped making those requests in order to not upset any groups while the DCP was negotiated,and have not made a request since 2017, according to the letter.

The letter additionally states that the community is reviewing other legislation that could be “problematic,” but did not give any specifics on which bills it was referring to.

The states involved in the DCP have between March 4 and 19 to submit their finalized deals and agreements, and if they are not all in place by the end of that deadline the federal government will intervene and take control of the deal.

A spokesman for the Gila River Indian Community did not respond to a request for comment from the Mirror.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.