As a child on the San Xavier Reservation south of Tucson, Rosanna Carlyle helped her family grow melons, corn, squash, chiles, tomatoes, barley, hay and beans. The water came from ditches fed by the Santa Cruz River.
Eventually, the river and the ditches dried up; the big cottonwood and mesquite trees along them died; and farming on the reservation was gone by the 1980s.
On Friday, however, Carlyle and dozens of other Tohono O'odham members celebrated at a ceremony that could harbor a return to some traditions from their past.
Tohono O'odham tribal leaders joined Gov. Janet Napolitano and Tucson officials in signing a water rights settlement that the tribe hopes will make some of its land bloom again.
The settlement will end 31 years of litigation that Carlyle and another tribal member had filed on behalf of a group of San Xavier landowners to limit Tucson's water pumping, which was one reason the river dried up.
The settlement doesn't stop the city's pumping, but it will:
● Assure the tribe 50,000 acre-feet a year of water, mainly from the Central Arizona Project. The water can be used on tribal farms in the San Xavier and Schuk Toak districts, for future economic development projects, for restoring part of the river and recharging the aquifer, or to sell or lease to thirsty Arizona cities. Schuk Toak lies on the main O'odham Reservation's eastern edge, just west of Three Points.
● Give non-Indian area residents some certainty about their future water supplies, by providing assurances against future O'odham water rights litigation and ending the original lawsuit.
● Clear the way for mining giant Asarco to start using CAP water — an option it had long resisted — to replace much of the ground water used for its Mission Mine near Sahuarita.
● Require the Farmers Investment Co. to limit pumping for its pecan groves in the Sahuarita area to roughly its current levels, to make sure FICO's pumping doesn't deplete the tribe's water supplies further.
The settlement is still not final. Asarco, one of the parties to the case, must first get approval from federal Bankruptcy Court to sign on because it is currently in bankruptcy proceedings. A judge overseeing the long-standing discussions for the Gila River water rights adjudication — which includes the Tohono O'odham — must also sign off on the settlement.
But few observers expect either of those to be major obstacles. Officials hope the settlement will be fully completed by Dec. 31, 2007, said Judy Dworkin, a Scottsdale attorney representing Tucson in the case.
After tribal, city, county and state officials finished their speeches, Carlyle, now in her 70s, said she had never expected to live long enough to see this settlement become reality.
Congress had originally approved an earlier tribal water rights settlement in 1983. Carlyle and her fellow plaintiff, the late John Lewis, decided to oppose it because they felt it didn't provide enough benefits to landholders in the district, known as allottees, or do enough to guarantee a water supply.
"I thought it would go on and on," said Carlyle, who has five children and 14 grandchildren. "I am very happy. I finally saw the day that it happened.
"Now, they are going to start farming," she said of her family, "and start eating all the things I grew up with."
In a prepared statement, Carlyle said that her family and every other family had their own little farm near the Santa Cruz when she was growing up, and that her family also had cattle and horses. As children, she and her siblings played and swam in the river, which had frogs and fish along with cottonwoods.
In 1956, she left the reservation for California for 18 years. On her return, the river was dry and the trees had died. By the 1980s, most families' wells had dried up, said Carlyle, who has been retired since 1995 from her job as a secretary to the director of the Indian Health Service hospital in Sells.
Before the demise of their farms, the O'odham were "some of the healthiest people in the world," but then members started switching to fast foods and other unhealthy foods for the next few decades, Tribal Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders told the audience gathered for the ceremony.
Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup and Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson also attended, although Bronson didn't sign because the county, unlike the city, was never a defendant in the suit.
The water settlement will allow the tribe to expand its existing cooperative farm just north of San Xavier District offices, where the ceremony was held.
The farm, which already uses about 1,000 acre-feet of CAP water, should ramp up to about 5,000 to 6,000 acre-feet by 2008. That's when it will expand to 960 acres from 250 acres today, said Bill Worthey, the farm manager. The farm, which started in 2001, currently grows corn, alfalfa, squash and the traditional O'odham tepary bean.
The tribe has also started putting small amounts of CAP water into the Santa Cruz, where it also has reintroduced some native fish species. It is also recharging some CAP water into the aquifer in some arroyos.
San Xavier District Chairman Austin Nuñez said he would not favor selling or leasing any of the water to outsiders, even in future years when water prices are expected to jump.
"The water defines who we are as a community," Nuñez said.
Under the settlement, Asarco will pay $1.5 million to San Xavier allottees and will have the rights to use up to 10,000 acre-feet of tribal CAP water at the Mission Mine. In return, the tribe will get credits allowing it to pump more groundwater, since Asarco would reduce its groundwater pumping to match what it uses in CAP water.
For years, many Tucson-area officials have wanted to get the mines south of Tucson off groundwater. Asarco and other mining companies always refused because of the CAP's high cost and concerns that the poorer-quality water would hurt its mining operations.
Now, Asarco will pay a highly subsidized rate of $20 per acre-foot annually for the CAP water, compared to $83 an acre foot that the city pays.
"It was a money issue," said Gregg Houtz, a deputy Arizona Department of Water Resources counsel who helped guide the water settlement negotiations. "You've gotta make CAP affordable."
Asarco has tested CAP water in recent years and found that it didn't hurt its operations. The company will start using the CAP once the settlement becomes final and will probably use up to 6,000 acre-feet a year, a company official said.
"It was a pretty comprehensive negotiation. It is a good settlement for all the parties. There were some technical issues in the past. I think we've overcome those," said John Low, Asarco's vice president for operations. "Sure, the price we will pay is an incentive."
● The settlement assures the Tohono O'odham tribe 50,000 acre-feet a year of water, mainly from the CAP.
● One acre-foot supplies three typical Tucson families enough household water for a year.