FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — For thousands of years, an Arizona tribe, the Mohaves, relied on the Colorado River’s natural flooding patterns to farm. Later, the tribe dug ditches and canals by hand to route water to fields.
In the 20th Century, during World War II, the Office of Indian Affairs had an internment camp for Japanese-Americans set up in Poston on the Colorado River Indian Reservation. The Japanese built much of the canal and water infrastructure that allowed for large-scale farming on Tribal lands.
Now, gravity sends the river water from Headgate Rock Dam on the north end of the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation through these canals to sustain alfalfa, cotton, wheat, onions and potatoes, mainly by flooding the fields.
Some of those fields haven't been producing lately as the Tribes contribute water to prop up Lake Mead to help weather a historic drought in the American West. The reservoir serves as a barometer for how much water Arizona and other states will get under plans to protect the river serving 40 million people.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes and another tribe in Arizona played an outsized role in the drought contingency plans that had the state voluntarily give up water. As Arizona faces mandatory cuts next year in its Colorado River supply, the tribes see themselves as major players in the future of water.
“We were always told more or less what to do, and so now it's taking shape where tribes have been involved and invited to the table to do negotiations, to have input into the issues about the river,” first-term Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said.
Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border has fallen to its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s. Water experts say the situation would be worse had CRIT not agreed to store 150,000 acre-feet in the lake over three years. A single acre-foot is enough to serve one to two households per year. The Gila River Indian Community also contributed water.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes received $38 million in return, including $30 million from the state. Environmentalists, foundations and corporations fulfilled a pledge last month to chip in the rest.
Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund said the agreement signaled a new approach to combating drought, climate change and the demand from the river.
“The way we look at it, the Colorado River basin is ground zero for water-related impacts of climate change,” he said. “And we have to plan for the river and the watersheds that climate scientists tell us we're probably going to have, not the one we might wish for.”
Tribal officials say the $38 million is more than what they would have made leasing the land. The Colorado River Indian Tribes stopped farming more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) to make water available, tribal attorney Margaret Vick said.
“There's an economic tradeoff as well as a conservation tradeoff,” she said.
While some fields are dry on the reservation, CRIT plans to use the money to invest in its water infrastructure. It has the oldest irrigation system built by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, some canals dating to 1867. Other canals were built in the years during and just after World War II. They serve nearly 125 square miles (323 square kilometers) of tribal land.
The age of the irrigation system means it’s in constant need of repairs and improvements. Flores, the tribal chairwoman, said some parts of the 232-mile (373-kilometer) concrete and earthen canal are lined and others aren't, so water is lost through seepage or cracks.
A 2016 study conducted by CRIT put the price tag to fix the deficiencies at more than $75 million. They are leveraging grants, funding from previous conservation efforts and other money to put a dent in the repairs, Flores said.
“If we had all the dollars in the world to line all the canals that run through our reservation, that would be a great project to complete,” Flores said. “I don't think that's going to happen in our lifetime.”
One proposed method of raising funds for canal improvements was leasing some of the Tribes’ water rights. This proved controversial. In 2017, then-Chairman Dennis Patch came under fire for proposals to lease some of the Tribes’ allotment of Colorado River water to outside interests.
Two Tribal members, Tim Stevens-Welsh and Amber Van Fleet, began a recall effort against Patch and the members of the Tribal Council. They said water is precious to the Mohave people, and their greatest resource. They alleged tribal leaders were gambling with their future in planning to lease the water rights. They accused them of acting without the knowledge and consent of Tribal members.
In published reports, Patch said leasing CRIT’s water would be a benefit to communities around Arizona. He added the funds received from leasing water would be used for economic development on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, most notably to repair the rundown system of irrigation canals. He said the needs of the Tribes, including environmental protection, would be an important part of any agreement.
Patch was removed from office in a recall election on April 28, 2018 by a vote of 469 to 467. He won back his post July 7, 2018, when he received the most number of votes among seven candidates in a special election to fill the position of Tribal Chairman. He lost his effort at reelection in December 2020, when Flores was elected.
The issue of leasing Tribal water rights to outside entities was put to Tribal voters in a special election Jan. 19, 2019. The members voted 435 to 252 to allow Tribal leaders to negotiate the lease of some Tribal water rights.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes are made up of four distinct groups of Native Americans — Chemehuevi, Mohave, Hopi and Navajo. While the Mohaves and Chemehuevis are native to the area, the Hopis and Navajos came to the area after World War II through a government program that relocated them from their ancestral lands in northern Arizona. The reservation includes more than 110 miles (177 kilometers) of Colorado River shoreline with some of the oldest and most secure rights to the river in both Arizona and California.
While much of the water goes to farming, it also sustains wildlife preserves and the culture of the tribes that make up CRIT.
“We can't forget about the spiritual, the cultural aspect to the tribes on the Colorado River,” Flores said. “Our songs, clan songs, river and other traditional rites that happen at the river.”
CRIT can't take full advantage of its right to divert 662,000 acre-feet per year from the Colorado River on the Arizona side because it lacks the infrastructure. They also have water rights in California.
An additional 46 square miles (121 square kilometers) of land could be developed for agriculture if CRIT had the infrastructure, according to a 2018 study on water use and development among tribes in the Colorado River basin.
“One day,” Flores said. “That's the goal of our leaders who have come behind me, to use all of our water allocation and develop our lands that right now are not developed.”
Fonseca is a member of The Associated Press' race and ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/FonsecaAP.ohn
Pioneer reporter John Gutekunst contributed to this story.