The Colorado River as it flows around Horseshoe Bend on June 23, 2021 in Page, Arizona. Severe drought is causing concern and heartache among those who rely on water from the Colorado River Basin. Lake Powell, one of its reservoirs is currently at 34.56% of capacity, a historic low. The lake stands at 138.91 feet below full pool and has dropped 44 feet in the past year. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A new proposal in Congress would let Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes lease portions of their federal Colorado River allocations for the first time, a move the tribes said would benefit both the river and tribal economies.
“This legislation protects the life of the river, protects Arizona’s fragile groundwater resources, and, for the first time in more than 156 years, allows our people to receive the full benefit from our water rights,” CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores said in a press release. “The time has come for CRIT to have authority over its resources.”
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Flores said the tribal council has been working on this legislation for over 20 years, and it’s finally going through, but she understands they still have a long way to go.
She sees this legislation as a stepping stone to get the tribe where they want to be, which is giving them the ability to have authority over their own water.
“It’s the recognition of our sovereignty,” Flores told the Arizona Mirror. “It’s the recognition of exercising out water rights for the benefit of our tribal members.”
The Colorado River Indian Tribes Water Resiliency Act of 2021 (S. 3308) was introduced this month by Arizona U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema.
“Arizona is dealing with the real-time effects of drought as water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell continue to decline,” Kelly said in a press release. “Our bill will help lessen the impacts of Colorado River drought restrictions in the coming years, while at the same time enabling the Colorado River Indian Tribes full exercise of their water rights.”
The purpose of the act is to “authorize the CRIT to enter into lease or exchange agreements and storage agreements for the economic well-being of the CRIT; and to authorize the Secretary (of the Interior) to approve any lease or exchange agreements or storage agreements entered into by the CRIT,” the bill reads
“Our commonsense legislation protects and strengthens Arizona’s water security, while boosting economic opportunities for the Colorado River Indian Tribes,” Sinema said in a press release.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) include four distinct tribes — the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo — with over 4,500 active tribal members.
The CRIT has water rights to the Lower Colorado River for 719,248 acre-feet per year and it has been primarily used for irrigation to serve their tribal lands in both Arizona and California. The CRIT is the largest user of Colorado River water in Arizona.
In 1865, tribal land for CRIT was created by the federal government. It stretches along the Colorado River on both the Arizona and California side, according to the tribe’s website. It includes almost 300,000 acres of land, with the river serving as the focal point of the area.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes have been trying to move forward with this type of water legislation for years. The tribe included the proposition of water leasing on their 2019 tribal ballot so their citizens had a say in what happens. Nearly two-thirds voted in favor.
The CRIT currently has no congressionally approved water settlement. Their water rights came as part of a decree from the Supreme Court in 1964.
If the new legislation passes, the tribe will be able to lease water that was previously used only on tribal land, allocate its water resources to protect natural habitats along the Colorado River and provide a short-term water supply for entities experiencing drought or shortages across Arizona.
Overall water usage on the Colorado River would not increase because of CRIT water leases, according to the tribe. Instead, they would fallow existing farmland, change crop patterns on existing agricultural lands, and improve water delivery systems.
“We want to save the river,” Flores said. “The important thing is to keep the water flowing.”
The tribe plans to invest part of the revenue from its leases back into its Bureau of Indian Affairs irrigation system to improve water efficiency in its agriculture operations, according to a press release, increasing the amount of water that can be made available for leasing to Arizona communities in future years.
“Funds from the water leasing will provide revenue for our tribe, for the government and for our tribal members,” Flores said.
The tribe is still dealing with the impacts of the pandemic — which will last for years — and Flores said that these funds will help offset that.
When it comes to the irrigation system, she said they require a lot of major repairs so part of the revenue will be used for that so the “water can flow efficiently through those canal systems.”
Officials believe that the bill is essential to making Arizona more resilient to drought.
“This legislation comes at a critical time in Arizona as drought conditions worsen,” Flores said. “Thanks to the tribe’s wise use of resources and conservation, CRIT is able to help Arizona get through this drought, while being fairly compensated for our water.”
Margaret Vick, who provides legal counsel for CRIT on all water rights, said the tribe, like many others in Arizona, have been doing their part in contributing water to Lake Mead.
“They’ve been leading water into Lake Mead to prop up the levels since 2016,” Vick said. By the end of 2022, the tribe will have contributed about 170,000 acre-feet of water to the lake.
“With the legislation, the water can be targeted to specific uses, not left in Lake Mead, and CRIT has the number one priority water right in the lower basin,” she added. “So, as shortages affect critical needs, CRIT will be able with this legislation to step in, to help provide water.”
Flores said the tribe is ready to help out and the only way they can do it is by getting the legislation passed.
“We need an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to addressing the Colorado River Basin’s water crisis, and tribes are essential partners,” said Kevin Moran, Senior Director, Colorado River Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “This legislation authorizes CRIT to continue engaging in collaborative water conservation agreements that will be good for tribes, Arizona, and the resilience of the Colorado River.
***UPDATED: This story has been updated to include additional comments.
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