Tribes become major water players in drought aid to Arizona

Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) — Tribes in Arizona have been farming for thousands of years, relying on the natural flood patterns of the Colorado River. He then manually dug ditches and canals to send water to the fields.

Gravity now maintains alfalfa, cotton, wheat, onions and potatoes by feeding the river water from the northern end of the Colorado River Indian Reservation to 19th-century canals, mainly flooding the fields.

Some of these fields have not been produced recently, as the tribes provide water to support Lake Mead and help the weather. Historical drought In the western United States. Reservoirs serve as a barometer of how much water Arizona and other states will get under plans to protect rivers that serve 40 million people.

The Colorado River Indian tribe and another tribe in Arizona played a major role in the drought emergency response program, where the state voluntarily abandoned water. Arizona will be forced to cut back on the Colorado River next year, so the tribes consider themselves a major player in water of the future.

“We were always told more or less what to do, so now tribes are involved, invited to the table to negotiate, and informed about river issues. “Chairman Amelia Flores said.

Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border, has fallen to its lowest point since it was filled with water in the 1930s. Water experts say the situation is exacerbated if the tribe does not agree to store 150,000 acre-foot in the lake over a three-year period. One acre-foot can serve one or two households a year. The Gila River Indian Community also provided water.

The Colorado River Indian tribe received $ 38 million, including $ 30 million from the state. Environmentalists, foundations and businesses made a pledge last month to cut the rest.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Kevin Moran said the deal represents a new approach to combating drought, climate change and demand from rivers.

“In our view, the Colorado River basin is zero due to the water-related effects of climate change,” he said. “And we have to plan rivers and basins that climate scientists tell us that they probably don’t have what we might want.”

Tribal officials say $ 38 million is more than they would have made by leasing land. The Colorado River Indian tribe has ceased farming more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) to make water available, said tribe lawyer Margaret Vic.

“There is an economic trade-off and a conservation trade-off,” she said.

Some fields are dry in the settlement, but the tribes will use the money to invest in water infrastructure. The oldest irrigation system, built by the US Indian Authority in 1867, serves nearly 125 square miles (323 square kilometers) of tribal land.

The era of irrigation systems means that it is in constant need of improvement. Tribe chairman Flores said some of the 232 miles (373 kilometers) of concrete and soil canals are lined and others are unlined, resulting in water loss due to infiltration and cracking. It was.

In a 2016 survey conducted by the tribe, price tags for fixing defects exceeded $ 75 million. Grants, funding from previous conservation efforts, and other funding are being used to hit repairs, Flores said.

“If we had all the money in the world to line up all the canals through our settlement, it would be a great project to complete,” Flores said. “I don’t think it will happen in our lifetime.”

The tribe consists of four different Native American groups: Kemefu shrimp, Mojave, Hopi, and Navajo. This booking includes over 110 miles (177 kilometers) of the Colorado River coastline, which has the oldest and safest river rights in both Arizona and California.

Much of the water is used for agriculture, but it also maintains wildlife sanctuaries and tribal culture.

“We cannot forget the spiritual and cultural aspects of the Colorado River tribe,” Flores said. “Our songs, botanical songs, rivers, and other traditional rituals that take place in rivers.”

Due to lack of infrastructure, tribes cannot take full advantage of their right to divert 662,000 acre-foot a year from the Colorado River on the Arizona side. We also have water rights in California.

According to a 2018 survey of tribal water use and development in the Colorado River basin, an additional 46 square miles (121 square kilometers) of land could be developed for agriculture if the tribes had infrastructure.

“One day,” Flores said. “It is the goal of our leaders who came behind me, to use all our water allocations and develop our land that is not currently being developed.”


Fonseca is a member of the Associated Press racial and ethnic team. Follow her on Twitter.

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