Apr 6, 2023 - Politics

Gila River Indian Community, feds announce water conservation deal

A man in a sport coat and a bolo tie speaks at a podium with several people and a row of US and Arizona flags behind him.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis at a press event yesterday. Photo: Jeremy Duda/Axios

Federal dollars will fund a pair of plans in which the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) will conserve hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water over the next few years to help Arizona and the rest of the Colorado River basin cope with an ongoing drought.

Driving the news: Under the terms of the deal that state, local, tribal and federal officials announced Thursday, the GRIC will save 125,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually for each of the next three years.

  • The tribe will be paid $50 million annually for the water, with funding from the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act that President Biden signed last year.
  • The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation expects the initiative to boost Lake Mead's elevation levels nearly 2 feet.

Zoom in: GRIC will also get $83 million from the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for a pipeline that will bring reclaimed water from Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project facilities, which will help supplement the water the tribe is forgoing.

  • They'll be able to conserve up to 20,000 acre-feet of river water annually.

What they're saying: "We're trying to make this moment into a movement, a movement of water conservation," GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said at a press event on Thursday.

  • The pipeline will break ground next month.

Between the lines: Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero announced conservation efforts in their cities as well.

  • Tucson will conserve 50,000 acre-feet this year and up to 30,000 in each of the following two years, while Phoenix committed to a one-year conservation of 30,000 acre-feet.

Why it matters: The Colorado River basin is in the midst of a 23-year "megadrought" — the region's worst in about 1,200 years.

Yes, but: The Bureau of Reclamation wants the basin states to conserve an additional 2-4 million acre-feet of water per year, and the new measures are a relative drop in the bucket toward that goal.

  • Still, David Palumbo, the bureau's deputy commissioner, said the incremental savings realized through agreements like the one with GRIC will continue raising the elevation of Lake Mead and ameliorate future cuts.
  • He said other agreements over the next few months in Arizona and other basin states will make a "meaningful contribution" toward the bureau's goal.
  • Central Arizona Project general manager Brenda Burman told Axios Phoenix she views the agreement as significant as well.

The big picture: The GRIC agreements were separate from the $585 million in water projects the Biden administration announced in 11 Western states, including Arizona, on Wednesday.

The intrigue: It's the lower basin states that are most dependent on Colorado River water, and negotiations have been a bit rocky, with Arizona officials pointing a finger at California.


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