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A new proposal in Congress would let
Arizona’s Colorado River Indian Tribes lease portions of their federal
Colorado River allocations for the first time, a move the tribes said
would benefit both the river and tribal economies.

“This legislation protects the life
of the river, protects Arizona’s fragile groundwater resources, and, for
the first time in more than 156 years, allows our people to receive the
full benefit from our water rights,” CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores said
in a press release. “The time has come for CRIT to have authority over its resources.”

Flores said the tribal council has been working on this legislation
for over 20 years, and it’s finally going through, but she understands
they still have a long way to go.

She sees this legislation as a stepping stone to get the tribe where
they want to be, which is giving them the ability to have authority over
their own water.

“It’s the recognition of our sovereignty,” Flores told the Arizona Mirror. “It’s the recognition of exercising out water rights for the benefit of our tribal members.”

The Colorado River Indian Tribes
Water Resiliency Act of 2021 (S. 3308) was introduced this month by
Arizona U.S. Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema.

“Arizona is dealing with the
real-time effects of drought as water levels in Lake Mead and Lake
Powell continue to decline,” Kelly said in a press release. “Our bill
will help lessen the impacts of Colorado River drought restrictions in
the coming years, while at the same time enabling the Colorado River
Indian Tribes full exercise of their water rights.” 

The purpose of the act is to
“authorize the CRIT to enter into lease or exchange agreements and
storage agreements for the economic well-being of the CRIT; and to
authorize the Secretary (of the Interior) to approve any lease or
exchange agreements or storage agreements entered into by the CRIT,” the
bill reads.

“Our commonsense legislation protects
and strengthens Arizona’s water security, while boosting economic
opportunities for the Colorado River Indian Tribes,” Sinema said in a
press release.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes
(CRIT) include four distinct tribes — the Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and
Navajo — with over 4,500 active tribal members. 

The CRIT has water rights to the Lower Colorado River for 719,248 acre-feet per year
and it has been primarily used for irrigation to serve their tribal
lands in both Arizona and California. The CRIT are one of the largest
single users of the Colorado River in Arizona, trailing only the Gila
River Indian Community.

In 1865, tribal land for CRIT was
created by the federal government. It stretches along the Colorado River
on both the Arizona and California side, according to the tribe’s website. It includes almost 300,000 acres of land, with the river serving as the focal point of the area.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes have
been trying to move forward with this type of water legislation for
years. The tribe included the proposition of water leasing on their 2019
tribal ballot so their citizens had a say in what happens. Nearly
two-thirds voted in favor.

The CRIT currently has no congressionally approved water settlement. Their water rights came as part of a decree from the Supreme Court in 1964.

If the new legislation passes, the
tribe will be able to lease water that was previously used only on
tribal land, allocate its water resources to protect natural habitats
along the Colorado River and provide a short-term water supply for
entities experiencing drought or shortages across Arizona. 

Overall water usage on the Colorado
River would not increase because of CRIT water leases, according to the
tribe. Instead, they would fallow existing farmland, change crop
patterns on existing agricultural lands, and improve water delivery
systems. 

“We want to save the river,” Flores said. “The important thing is to keep the water flowing.”

The tribe plans to invest part of the
revenue from its leases back into its Bureau of Indian Affairs
irrigation system to improve water efficiency in its agriculture
operations, according to a press release, increasing the amount of water
that can be made available for leasing to Arizona communities in future
years. 

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“Funds from the water leasing will provide revenue for our tribe, for the government and for our tribal members,” Flores said.

The tribe is still dealing with the impacts of the pandemic — which
will last for years — and Flores said that these funds will help offset
that.

When it comes to the irrigation system, she said they require a lot
of major repairs so part of the revenue will be used for that so the
“water can flow efficiently through those canal systems.”

Officials believe that the bill is essential to making Arizona more resilient to drought. 

“This legislation comes at a critical
time in Arizona as drought conditions worsen,” Flores said. “Thanks to
the tribe’s wise use of resources and conservation, CRIT is able to help
Arizona get through this drought, while being fairly compensated for
our water.”

Margaret Vick, who provides legal counsel for CRIT on all water
rights, said the tribe, like many others in Arizona, have been doing
their part in contributing water to Lake Mead.

“They’ve been leading water into Lake Mead to prop up the levels
since 2016,” Vick said. By the end of 2022, the tribe will have
contributed about 170,000 acre-feet of water to the lake.

“With the legislation, the water can be targeted to specific uses,
not left in Lake Mead, and CRIT has the number one priority water right
in the lower basin,” she added. “So, as shortages affect critical needs,
CRIT will be able with this legislation to step in, to help provide
water.”

Flores said the tribe is ready to help out and the only way they can do it is by getting the legislation passed.

“We need an ‘all-hands-on-deck’
approach to addressing the Colorado River Basin’s water crisis, and
tribes are essential partners,” said Kevin Moran, Senior Director,
Colorado River Program at the Environmental Defense Fund. “This
legislation authorizes CRIT to continue engaging in collaborative water
conservation agreements that will be good for tribes, Arizona, and the
resilience of the Colorado River.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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