Restoring their riverbed while aiding their neighbours

At a time when western US drought is in the news, it was heartening to read about the revival of a long-dried-up Arizona riverbed and to learn that it happened because the Gila River Indian Community decided to help solve broader regional water supply problems by working with its neighbours even as it ensures it community members have long-term access to their own water resources.

The small segment of the 649-mile Gila River has served the tribes that make up the Gila River Indian Community — the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) — for roughly 2,000 years. Now it is healing and restoring itself – and the tribes’ cultural and agricultural practices – through a complicated series of water agreements that dates back to 2004 Congressional legislation, the Arizona Water Settlement Act.

That act allocated a set amount of water to the Gila River Indian Community each year and in doing so, it righted a very old wrong because the community’s ancient agricultural traditions had been curtailed when miners and white settlers began diverting water following the Civil War.

“It was the theft of our water, so this was a generational historic struggle to regain our water,” says Governor Stephen Roe Lewis, who recently began his third term as leader of the Gila River Indian Community. “We were and we still are historically agriculturalists, farmers. Our lineage, our ancestors were the Huhugam. And the Huhugam civilization had pretty much cultivated the modern-day Phoenix area in central Arizona.” 

“They were master builders,” he adds, referring to complex water systems and canals that he says rivaled those of the Nile Valley. 

Water management in the western US is hugely complex as explained in the article. It can often be extremely contentious. But the 2004 agreement restored the Gila River Indian Community’s claims to the river and its tributaries without displacing others by providing an alternate supply from the Central Arizona Project (CAP).

That 336-mile project conveys about 1.5 million acre-feet of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona each year. In 1971, three years after the federal government authorized the system, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District — a multi-county water district — formed to repay the federal government for the project’s costs and oversee regional water supply.

The 2004 settlement gave the Gila River Indian Community the single largest CAP entitlement — bigger than that of the city of Phoenix. But even after exchanges and lease, including providing water to Phoenix and other municipalities, the Gila were left with about 250,000-acre-feet for its own purposes.  But the community was using only about 50,000 acre-feet for irrigation purposes, leaving about 200,000-acre-feet unused. 

So in 2010, the community launched a strategic venture to store, share and sell much more of its CAP water through partnerships and agreements that are explained in detail in the article.

But Gila River residents only really saw their riverbed revived for good, rather than just In particularly wet seasons,.when community leaders launched a homegrown storage initiative – a network of managed aquifer recharge (MAR) sites which allow water to flow freely from a naturally permeable area like a streambed, into an aquifer. To do this, the community agreed with the state of Arizona to get state regulatory permits for the MAR projects. It didn’t have to do this – tribal nations have sovereign control over water management. But doing so made it possible for the community to market long-term storage credits in a sort of environmentally friendly banking system that allows more groundwater to stay in the ground and creates a revenue stream for the nation, the article explains.

Three MAR facilities operate on the reservation today, and one more will be complete in a few years. It was when the community was planning the very first MAR-5 site that the vision of the restored riverbed came about, because the settlement gave them the tools to make this possible. 

The revived river flow brought the land back to life quickly. An interpretive trail provides educational signposts and offers sacred cultural spaces for spiritual practice. Elders now use the resources to engage in traditional basket weaving, medicine making and pottery, he adds.

In 2019, the community made an agreement with the Central Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District (CAGRD), a groundwater replenishment entity operated by the Central Arizona Water Conservation District. CAGRD leases 18,185 acre-feet of the community’s CAP water and stores the majority of that water in the MAR sites, while receiving long-term storage credits in return from the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Only if the MAR facilities are full can CAGRD store the leased water elsewhere. 

The community has been rehabilitating existing wells and building new ones in order to create a backup supply for agricultural use when Gila River flow is minimal. Well water is less expensive than CAP water, since wells can recharge naturally during storms.

The community is engaged in the regional effort to elevate water levels in Lake Mead implemented by the federal government and the seven Colorado River Basin States, providing at least 200,000 acre-feet of water from 2020 to 2026 for which it gets money through the Arizona Water Bank and the Bureau of Reclamation. Only through the community’s creative collaborations and homegrown projects has so much of its CAP entitlement been able to help replenish Lake Mead, says attorney and tribal member Jason Hauter.

Lewis is confident that the community’s agricultural tradition will remain strong. “We’ve always been innovators, going back to the Huhugam with their amazing engineering.” As well as the commercial company Gila River Farms, which is owned by the tribe and employs community members, local family farms continue to thrive. Lewis also says that “there’s a big push” for young people to obtain degrees in agribusiness, hydrology, water engineering and other relevant fields that will provide them with a livelihood while working for their community — a place that has become even more special to them during the pandemic year.

“It’s a public health emergency that we’ve been going through,” Lewis adds. “But at the same time, I think this is an opportunity where you see a lot [of] our younger generation that are wanting to learn who it is to be from the Gila River Indian Community.”


The Gila River Indian Community innovates for a drought-ridden future. High Country News, May 13, 2021

(This story is part of a collaboration, Tapped Out: Power, justice and water in the West, in which eight Institute for Nonprofit News newsrooms — California Health Report and High Country News; SJV Water and the Center for Collaborative Investigative Journalism; Circle of Blue; Columbia Insight; Ensia; and New Mexico In Depth — spent more than three months reporting on water issues in the Western U.S. It was made possible by a grant from The Water Desk, with support from Ensia and INN’s Amplify News Project.)