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New water leasing bill is years in the making for Colorado River Indian Tribes

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

Lake Mead is at historically low levels, and Arizona will take mandatory cuts to its Colorado River water supply starting in January. But one tribe that lives along the river’s banks along the Arizona-California border says it has enough supply to lease to other cities. 

Like other Arizona tribes, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, a tribe made up of some 4,500 Mojave, Chemehuevi, Hopi and Navajo members, has senior water rights that won’t be subject to cuts next year. But Chairwoman Amelia Flores says there's a key difference between her tribe and others. 

"We have real water, there’s a difference, with other tribes, they have paper water," she said. 

That’s because the tribe is situated right on the river. Between rights in California and Arizona, it receives more than 700,000 acre feet of water every year. 

But for years, Flores says that supply has been restricted, because the tribe hasn’t been allowed to take any of the water off the reservation. A new bill introduced by Sen. Mark Kelly could change that by allowing some to be piped to other parts of the state and leased on terms stipulated by the tribe. Flores says the tribe already has farming operations on its reservation and leases plots to non-tribal members. She says the new bill is years in the making. 

"We’re farmers, we'll always be farmers," she said. "We'll always use the water on our land, but we can also help out, especially during this drought, and we can also use the money derived as income."

Flores says the extra income would be used to repair irrigation systems and other infrastructure on the reservation. The bill was introduced by Kelly and co-signed by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema. Flores says discussions about where the water would end up in Arizona, or how long lease periods would last, haven't started yet.

Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.