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Arizona Tribe Proposes Federal Law To Lease Its Water Rights

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

The Colorado River Indian Tribes near Parker is proposing a federal law to allow it to lease water rights in Arizona, a move that could aid the state’s response to the drought.

The tribe said in public hearings on Dec. 7 and Dec. 10 that it would use the money raised from leasing Colorado River water to bolster services to its members, including for health care, education, elder programs and law enforcement.

"We want to improve (the) federal irrigation project that serves our farmland to use our water more efficiently. But to do this, we need to raise capital," said Tribal Chairman Dennis Patch at the Dec. 10 hearing. "Leasing will make a limited amount our first-priority mainstream water available for central Arizona and other users of the river water. ... This is a win for Arizona water users, for the river, and for our people and the reservation economy."

The tribe is made up of four distinct groups of Native Americans — Mohave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo — along the Arizona-California border. The Colorado River Indian Tribes has one of the largest allocations of Colorado River water anywhere, and it’s among the most secure, dating back to the 1860s when the reservation based in Parker was formed.

Its 662,000 acre-feet in Arizona is bigger than the state’s allocation. It also has 56,000 acre-feet in California. An acre-foot is enough to supply a typical family for a year.

A lot of the allocation in Arizona goes unused by the tribe, ending up back in the Colorado River and into a canal system that serves Phoenix and Tucson.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes isn’t allowed to lease those water rights under a federal statute enacted in 1792 that prohibits the transfer of Native American trust assets without an act of Congress.

Its proposal to lease water, exchange water and store it underground on the reservation involves only its Arizona share. Leasing the water would allow more access to water statewide and help prevent severe drought because the tribe’s allocation is unlikely to be cut in any future water shortage, the tribe said.

The Arizona Department of Water Resources director would review any deals the tribe makes to ensure they are legal and the water is put to beneficial use in Arizona. The department and the Colorado River Indian Tribes are gathering public comment on the proposal until Jan. 8.

Find details on submitting a public comment at the website here.

Austin Fast joined KJZZ in 2020 as he finished his master's degree in investigative journalism at Arizona State's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.Before moving to Phoenix, he covered the world’s largest wild salmon fishery at KDLG Public Radio in rural Alaska, wrote breaking news at a Cincinnati TV station, and taught English overseas with the Peace Corps. He now works on the investigations team at National Public Radio in Washington, D.C.