The Gila River Indian Community has struggled for nearly 80 years to restore its water rights, an effort that finally ended in 2004 when Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act. Under that legislation the Community is entitled to up to 311,800 acre-feet of Central Arizona Project water per year, making it the largest single customer of CAP water in Arizona.
The CAP water is key to restoring the Community’s self-sufficient agricultural economy but the Community’s irrigation infrastructure will not be fully built out until 2029, and in the interim, it is not physically able to use its full CAP entitlement. The Community wants to put this water to use by figuring out a way to restore wetlands and the riparian habitat that is so important to the culture of Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh.
That’s where SRP comes in. In order to achieve its goals and perhaps realize its dream, the Community turned to SRP for its expertise in the utilization of water resources — in particular, expertise in riparian recharge and water storage. That expertise will help the Community re-create at least a part of the Gila River, while at the same time create long-term storage credits that it can use and sell, if appropriate, to help finance future riparian recharge activities.
“The Community’s motto is ‘where water flows, life grows’ and it captures the importance of the Gila River to the Community not only in terms of agricultural development, but also its cultural and religious significance,” said Gregory Mendoza, the Community’s Governor. “For the Akimel O’otham, which means the ‘River People,’ the Salt and Gila Rivers were part of our identity, so when the river was diverted, we were not only harmed economically but culturally and religiously as well.” Governor Mendoza believes that this partnership with SRP will not only help achieve the Community’s goals but marks a new chapter in Arizona’s water history. “We used to be on the opposite sides of the table when it came to water, but now we are partners,” said Governor Mendoza.
This sentiment is echoed by SRP. “Our work with the Gila River Community to help develop the Arizona Water Settlements Act laid the groundwork for this important partnership,” said John Sullivan, SRP’s Chief Resources Executive. “Through that process, we came to better understand the importance to the Community of restoring the Gila River. The partnership will not only help the Community achieve its objectives, it will make available vital water supplies for growing Valley communities and for SRP water users during periods of severe drought.”
The agreement with SRP provides needed expertise in exchange for access to a portion of the Community’s water supply for certain projects and in short supply years. The Community will use some of its long-term storage credits itself and will sell a certain proportion of them to other entities to create a stream of revenue for the development, operation and maintenance of the riparian recharge areas, a portion of the OM&R on the Community’s on-reservation canal system, and other water-related activities.
Arizona will also receive significant benefits from the Community’s agreement with SRP. In response to the growing need for renewable water supplies in central Arizona, the two parties intend to make the long-term storage credits available to a variety of current and prospective water users to provide those users access to renewable water supplies.
Under this agreement, the Community also intends to explore using its unique situation of being in both the Phoenix and Pinal AMAs (Active Management Areas) to create opportunities for water providers and other water users to more effectively manage the central Arizona region’s water resources. These opportunities will further assist the state in meeting its water-management goals.