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2 tribal leaders instrumental in water deals named 2023 Arizonans of the Year

It’s the start of a new year and that means the front page of the Arizona Republic this week features the Arizonans of the Year.

It’s a spot that’s been held by many of the great leaders in Arizona in years past, and this year the title goes to two tribal leaders here: Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Tribe and Colorado Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores.

The editorial board says the two have become influential water caretakers in our state and region at a crucial time and, Elvia Díaz, editorial page editor of the Republic joined The Show to tell us why they have named them the Arizonans of the Year. 

Interview highlights

So tell us why these two leaders and why water being the issue of focus here this year?

ELVIA DÍAZ: Well, I think you would agree that water has been one of the greatest issues of 2023. And so when we were discussing the Arizonans of the Year as a board, obviously, we had as we always do, you know, other contenders. And so the more that we talked about it amongst ourselves, the more that it became pretty clear that these two tribal leaders were the ones that we needed to pick, they absolutely deserve the recognition.

So, as you said, water, an incredibly important issue in our state and in our state's future right now, but tell us more about these two people in particular, they were both born and raised here. Tell us about them.

DÍAZ: Well, you know what, the more that I read about them, the more that I thought, why we haven't highlighted them more often during the the year when it comes to water and not just in 2023 but before you know, Gila River Governor Steven Roe Lewis and Colorado Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores. They had been at the table for a while now when it comes to water. Obviously, there are so many other characters on this.

But I mean, when it comes to tribal and the reservations, I mean, they truly have done some amazing work and not just recently, you know, that they had been at it for, for a long, long time. You know, Lewis, for instance, you know, he has a long history of dealing with water. You know, his father, the late Rod Lewis, is the one that secured the community water rights. You know, more than 650,000 acre feet of water a year for that community. That's huge. That's absolutely huge.

And, you know, Flores too. I mean, she has been at the table for three decades and being mentored by elders and her community, you know, she has a rich history and traditions and what have you all around water.

So, I, I think the shocking part to me is why we haven't talked more about them.

I want to talk a little bit about what these two have done in particular this year as well because there have been a lot of sort of major news stories and major, you know, governmental acts that they've been involved in from Congress to, you know, local deals to regional deals. Tell us about those.

DÍAZ: Well, Florence, for instance, you know, she is credited for helping to push legislation over the finish line in January of last year. So allowing the Colorado River Indian Tribes to lease some of their water to others in Arizona. Again, that's a, that's an important deal. It hasn't been finalized because local jurisdictions still have to approve it, but the fact that she was able to help Congress authorize that deal, you know, speaks volumes about her work and her ability to not navigate the federal government.

And as, as you recall, I mean, water rights are one of the most difficult things to deal with because it's not just one entity, you always have to deal with so many local and federal jurisdictions and you know, that the reservations have had their water rights and now they have the ability to be at the table and make the decisions themselves. And you know, like I mentioned in Flores case, you know, she was, she was instrumental in getting the federal legislation and so work is not over yet for her.

Yeah. Yeah. And, and Stephen Roe Lewis from Gila River was a big voice in negotiating the deal that conserved a lot of water in Lake Mead. He got a pipeline to his community from Mesa. There was a big story also about solar panels being put over the tribal canals, which I know is an innovation in this realm. Tell us about what he's done this year.

DÍAZ: Oh, he was able to secure more than 650,000 acre feet of water like I mentioned before. And to put that in perspective, that's more than twice what the city of Phoenix delivers to homes. So now, you know, because of his work, the tribe is entitled to a lot more water because of what he has done.

So he's been at the table, you know, from solar panels that, that, that you were mentioning to really negotiating water and being a sound voice for Arizona and for farmers and for, for everyone here in this state.

Yeah, this also comes at a moment I think, Elvia, when tribes are gaining some traction in terms of being at the negotiating table, envisioning our water future like being a part of those discussions which for so long they were kept out of.

DÍAZ: Oh, yes. I mean, talking about what he did, you know, in mid-year, he, for, for instance, Lewis specifically, you know, was instrumental in, in a $200-something million deal to leave water in Lake Mead. And remember those stories that we were talking about, you know, throughout the year that the lake is so low.

So yes, I mean, water is going to be, well, it is already, but it's going to be even more important as we move into the future because it's a limited, it's a limited resource.

So right now, we have to be looking at ways to share the water and it turns out that they have those water rights, you know, and rightly so. So of course, it is extremely important for them to be, to be at the table and, you know, to have a say on, on what we do.

I mean, it is, it still amazes to me. And I think you and I have been talking about this, that not a lot of people pay attention to the lack of water because when you turn your water faucet, well that, you know, the water is there. But, but, but, but it's really not, I mean, we're only talking about a few years, you know, 20 years is really nothing when it comes to allocating water resources. When when there's none and when we're depleting the source and that's why we're going to be hearing about water for, foreseeable future, certainly in 2024 and they are going to be instrumental, their knowledge.

So this is not the last time they're going to be hearing about them.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.