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Tribe holds off its planned approval of drought plan over legislation concern

Tribe holds off its planned approval of drought plan over legislation concern

  • Updated

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, left, meeting in December with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

PHOENIX — A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the federal government.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre-feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.

But Lewis said he learned House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.

“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.

And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.

“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.

Bowers declined to comment on the latest development. But an aide to the speaker said, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.

That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.

“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.

And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.

“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘our way or no way.”’

The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476 concerns at what point people who had at one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.

Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.

But what would otherwise be a discrete fight over water rights has now spilled over into the larger question of whether Arizona will have the water it needs.

Declining levels on Lake Mead mean that it will drop below 1,075 feet above sea level sometime next year. That’s the point at which the states along the basin need to reduce their use.

The drought contingency plan deals with the fact that Arizona will need to cut its draw by close to 20 percent — about 500,000 acre-feet a year — to about 2.3 million acre-feet. An acre-foot is the amount of water that would normally serve two typical families for a year.

It also involves efforts to leave some water to which Arizona and other states would otherwise be entitled in the lake, hoping to prevent, or at least delay, levels dropping to the point where further cuts would be necessary.

Arizona lawmakers ratified the plan Jan. 31, just hours before the deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But Burman has said neither Arizona nor California has finished all the necessary work to complete the deal. That resulted in the new March 4 deadline.

If the deals are not inked by then, Burman said she will start a process of figuring how to deal with the anticipated shortage.

Where the tribe fits in is it would provide 500,000 acre-feet of water between now and 2026, much of that earmarked for Pinal farmers who take the first cuts, receiving $60 million from various sources in exchange.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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