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U.S. Senate committee hears 2 bills on tribal water rights in Arizona

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

Two tribal leaders from Arizona testified to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday, defending a pair of bills brought by Sen. Mark Kelly and co-sponsored by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that center on tribal water rights. 

The first was a bill concerning the White Mountain Apache Tribe that asks for additional funding and an extended Congressional deadline to complete the tribe’s Rural Water System and Miner Flat Dam Project for drinking water, a project approved as part of a water rights settlement enacted by Congress in 2010.

Tribal Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said her tribe currently relies on groundwater supply that is inadequate. But the new system needs more time, and resources, to be completed as promised.  

"If this issue is not resolved the completion of the Rural Water System Project will be threatened, thereby increasing the ultimate cost to the tribe and the United States, and delaying delivery of life-sustaining drinking water to our reservation communities," she said. 

The other bill would allow the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, to lease some of its Colorado River supply to other parts of Arizona. The tribe has senior water rights in Arizona, but current federal law prohibits it from leasing that water off tribal land. 

CRIT Chairwoman Amelia Flores said her tribe has already helped to stave off the effects of a historic drought by fallowing its fields and taking other measures. She said the new legislation would allow it to do more, while also finally giving the tribe water sovereignty.

"This river is our namesake. It is our life," she said. "And if we don’t control our water, history tells us that others will."

Committee members have two weeks to submit additional questions.

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