FLAGSTAFF, Arizona – For thousands of years, a tribe in Arizona has relied on the natural floods of the Colorado River for farming. He later hand-dug ditches and canals to bring water to the fields.
Now gravity sends river water from the north end of the Colorado River Indian Tribe Preserve through 19th century canals to feed alfalfa, cotton, wheat, onions, and potatoes. , mainly by flooding the fields.
Some of these fields have not produced in recent times as the tribe is providing water to support Lake Mead to help weather a historic drought in the American West. The reservoir serves as a barometer for how much water Arizona and other states will receive as part of plans to protect the river serving 40 million people.
The Colorado River Indian tribes and one other Arizona tribe played a disproportionate role in drought contingency plans that forced the state to voluntarily forgo water. As Arizona faces mandatory cuts next year in its supply to the Colorado River, tribes see themselves as major players in the future of water.
“We have always been told more or less what to do, and now it is taking shape where the tribes have been involved and invited to the table to do negotiations, to have their say on the problems of the river”, first term of the Indian tribes of the Colorado River. said President Amelia Flores.
Lake Mead, on the Nevada-Arizona border, has fallen to its lowest point since filling in the 1930s. Water experts say the situation would be worse if the tribe did not agree to store 150,000 acre-feet in the lake over three years. One acre-foot is sufficient to serve one to two households per year. The Gila River Indian community also provided water.
The Colorado River Indian tribes received $ 38 million in return, including $ 30 million from the state. Environmentalists, foundations and businesses fulfilled their pledges last month to help the rest.
Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund said the agreement marked a new approach to tackling drought, climate change and demand on the river.
“The way we see it, the Colorado River Basin is the zero point for water-related impacts of climate change,” he said. “And we have to plan for the river and the watersheds that climatologists tell us we’re probably going to have, not the one we might want.”
Tribal officials say the $ 38 million is more than they would have earned by leasing the land. Colorado River Indian tribes stopped cultivating more than 15 square miles to make water available, tribal lawyer Margaret Vick said.
“There is an economic compromise as well as a conservation compromise,” she said.
While some fields are dry on the reserve, the tribe plans to use the money to invest in its water infrastructure. It has the oldest irrigation system built by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, dating from 1867, serving nearly 125 square miles of tribal land.
The age of the irrigation system means that it is in constant need of improvement. Flores, the president of the tribe, said parts of the 232-mile concrete and earth canal are lined and others are not, so water is lost through seepage or cracks.
A 2016 study conducted by the tribe put the price to pay for correcting the shortcomings at over $ 75 million. It leverages grants, funds from past conservation efforts and other funds to reduce repairs, Flores said.
“If we had all the dollars in the world to cover all the channels that run through our reserve, that would be a great project to complete,” said Flores. “I don’t think that will happen in our lifetime.”
The tribe is made up of four distinct groups of Native Americans – Chemehuevi, Mohave, Hopi and Navajo. The reserve encompasses over 110 miles of Colorado River shoreline with some of the oldest and most secure river rights in Arizona and California.
While much of the water is used for agriculture, it also supports the tribe’s wildlife sanctuaries and culture.
“We cannot forget the spiritual and cultural aspect of the Colorado River tribes,” said Flores. “Our songs, clan songs, river songs and other traditional rites that take place at the river.”
The tribe cannot take full advantage of its right to divert 662,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River to the Arizona side because it lacks infrastructure. It also has water rights in California.
According to a 2018 study of water use and development among tribes in the Colorado River Basin, an additional 46 square miles of land could be developed for agriculture if the tribe had the infrastructure.
“One day,” says Flores. “This is the goal of our leaders who have come behind me, to use all of our water allocation and develop our lands which are currently undeveloped.”