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Gila River threatens to pull out of Drought Contingency Plan

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, left, meeting in December with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, left, meeting in December with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (Capitol Media Services file photo by Howard Fischer)

A major player in the drought contingency plan on Thursday yanked its scheduled ratification of its part of the deal, potentially upending any chance of the state meeting the March 4 deadline set by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, said he had called for a special meeting of the tribal council to consider and approve the necessary agreements to provide up to 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026. That was designed to help make up for the water that the state will no longer be able to draw from Lake Mead, much of that earmarked for Pinal County farmers.

But Lewis said he learned that House Speaker Rusty Bowers has his own hearing set for Tuesday on legislation that would affect the tribe’s rights to water from the Gila River. As a result, Lewis said he and the council have decided they won’t consider ratification.

“This step may very well prevent us from being in a position to approve the Arizona DCP implementation plan in time to meet the very real deadline established by the Bureau of Reclamation, or in fact ever,” Lewis said.

And the tribal governor made it clear who he thinks will be to blame if the whole deal falls apart.

“While Speaker Bowers’ action may have placed the future of DCP in serious jeopardy, it will not shake our determination to protect our water settlement,” Lewis wrote.

Bowers declined to comment on the latest development.

But an aide to the speaker said that, at this point, Bowers intends to pursue his legislation, even with the threat.

That echoes the comments Bowers made last month to Capitol Media Services when the tribe first said he has to drop his legislation.

“I’m not going to back down,” he said at the time.

And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.

“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’ ”

Gov. Doug Ducey, who has made approval of the DCP a key goal, sidestepped questions about the new hurdle, with press aide Patrick Ptak saying only that his boss is focused on working with other states to get Congress to approve necessary changes in federal law.

The legislation that threatens to blow up the deal, HB 2476, concerns at what point people who had one time had the right to divert water from the river lose those rights. As the law now reads, those rights were forfeited if the water was not used for at least five years.

Bowers wants to repeal all that. That, in turn, would affect ongoing lawsuits about who gets to claim water from the upper Gila River, water that the tribe says belongs to it because the prior users forfeited their rights.

But what would otherwise be a discrete fight over water rights has now spilled over into the larger question of whether Arizona will have the water it needs.

Declining levels on Lake Mead mean that it will drop below 1,075 feet above sea level sometime next year. That’s the point at which the states along the basin need to reduce their use.

The drought contingency plan deals with the fact that Arizona will need to cut its draw by close to 20 percent − about 500,000 acre feet a year − to about 2.3 million acre feet. An acre foot is the amount of water that would normally serve two typical families for a year.

It also involves efforts to leave some water to which Arizona and other states would otherwise be entitled in the lake, hoping to prevent, or at least delay, levels dropping to the point where further cuts would be necessary.

Arizona lawmakers ratified the plan on Jan. 31, just hours before the deadline set by Brenda Burman, commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation.

But Burman has said neither Arizona nor California has finished all the necessary work to complete the deal. That resulted in the new March 4 deadline.

If the deals are not inked by then, Burman has said she will start a process of figuring out on her own how to deal with the anticipated shortage. And that could leave Arizona with access to even less water from Lake Mead than the drought contingency plan provides.

Where the tribe fits in is it would provide 500,000 acre feet of water between now and 2026, much of that earmarked for Pinal farmers who take the first cuts, receiving $60 million from various sources in exchange.

“We have remained committed and steadfast in our support of the DCP negotiation efforts throughout and made many sacrifices to help craft an Arizona DCP implementation plan that would work for all parties,” Lewis said Thursday. But he said there are limits.

“One of our key principles was that we must protect all tribal water settlement rights, including our own,” he said.

While Bowers would not discuss on Thursday what Lewis said, he previously told Capitol Media Services that he sees the issues of the rights of farmers and others to be separate and distinct from the drought contingency plan.

Bowers said that the Gila River often floods and even changes its banks, forcing farmers to change where they draw their water and even the layout of their land. But Bowers said that latter action then requires approval by the Army Corps of Engineers, a process that can take years.

Bowers said he doesn’t want the farmers to lose their rights in the interim simply because they are unable to take the water for some period. And he argued the has nothing to do with a deal by the tribe to provide water for the drought contingency plan, water he contends the tribe could not use, and water for which it would be paid.

“Anyone who says we’re not using our water is simply lying,” responded tribal attorney Don Pongrace.

He argued that the tribe actually would do better in the long run without participating in the drought contingency plan, saying it would get to keep all of its water through at least 2026. Pongrace said the tribe was trying to do its part for the greater good, only to be slapped with the Bowers legislation.

Editor’s note: The headline on this story was changed from its original published version to clarify that Gila River would not be a part of the Drought Contingency Plan as long as House Speaker Russell Bowers’ bill was under consideration. 

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