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Indian water rights should mean equal treatment for all Arizonans

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1908 that water to grow crops was reserved for Indians who gave up their nomadic ways to settle on reservations and become “civilized,” there has been a question about how much water this meant.
Trying to answer the question, the Supreme Court in 1963 said enough to water all the “practicably irrigable acreage” on an Indian reservation. Because there were more irrigable acres than water, courts later held that the quantity should be tailored to the minimum needed.
Now, the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC), in a filing with the Maricopa County Superior Court on Nov. 3, 2006, declares that “it is essential to recognize that the minimum amount of water necessary to meet the needs of an Indian homeland is enough water to provide a moderate standard of living for every Indian living on the reservation.”
On a succeeding page in the filing, GRIC chief counsel Jennifer K. Giff asserts that GRIC “is seeking water to create a homeland for its people where they can have the same middle class existence as non-Indians.”
Indians are citizens of the United States of America. According to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, all citizens are entitled to “the equal protection of the laws.”
The U.S. Constitution provides for neither “a moderate standard of living” nor a “middle class existence” for citizens (or non-citizens) living either on or off Indian reservations.
Indeed, the Constitution is silent on the subject of living standards, be they poor, moderate, middle class or wealthy.
But if citizens living on Indian reservations are entitled to a minimum amount of water “to provide a moderate standard of living” or “a middle class existence,” how about people not fortunate enough to live on Indian reservations?
Today, GRIC claims for itself 2,711,097 acre-feet of water per year (one acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, enough to meet the needs of a family of five for one year).
GRIC’s reservation is immediately south of metropolitan Phoenix in Maricopa and Pinal counties and encompasses about 373,000 acres, or about 582 square miles. Its population, 11,257 in 2000, currently is estimated to be 12,000.
Dividing GRIC’s claim of 2,711,097 acre-feet of water by its present estimated population of 12,000 produces almost 226 acre-feet of water for each resident. If GRIC got its claim, it would leave for the estimated 6 million other people living in the state less than one acre-foot apiece.
(The Arizona Department of Water Resources [ADWR] puts the state’s annual water supply at 7.87 million acre-feet, including 2.8 million acre-feet from the Colorado River, 1.4 million acre-feet from other rivers, 2.9 million acre-feet from groundwater, and 770,000 acre-feet from reclaimed water.)
GRIC, of course, does not expect to get the 2,711,097 acre-feet claimed, having settled, instead, for 653,500 acre-feet of water per year in the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004. Before the Settlements Act goes into effect, it must be approved by Maricopa County Superior Court.
GRIC’s filing with the court, in which it makes its claims for sufficient water to provide for “a moderate standard of living” or “middle class existence” for all reservation residents, is unrelated to the Settlements Act.
Rather, Ms. Giff makes her statements in arguing against the court awarding to the Arizona State Land Department (ASLD) a reserved water right for about 9 million acres of land remaining from 10 million acres given to Arizona when it became a state in 1912.
Regardless of how the court rules in the ASLD case, reservation Indians and other Arizonans should have “the equal protection of the laws” in distribution of the state’s water.
Presently, they do not, with Indian reservation control of the state’s Colorado River water to increase to 51.66 percent from 44 percent with enforcement of the Arizona Water Settlements Act.
Earl Zarbin, a retired Phoenix newspaperman, has written six books, four of them about central Arizona water. His latest book is “Let the Record Show…Gila River Indian Reservation Water Rights and the Central Arizona Project.”

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