The federal government will pay the Gila River Indian Community to leave some of its share of Colorado River water in Lake Mead, as well as funding infrastructure projects to increase wastewater reuse in irrigation.
Gila River Indian Community leaders and federal government officials announced a three-year deal on Thursday in which the tribe will relinquish up to 125,000 acre-feet of water in exchange for $400 per acre-foot.
If GRIC leaves the maximum amount of water in Lake Mead, the deal will bring $50 million a year to the tribe. That 125,000 acre-feet amounts to more than one-third of the tribe’s total Central Arizona Project (CAP) water allocation.
Another $83 million in federal funding will go towards water infrastructure projects, including a pipeline for channeling wastewater to be reused in irrigation and a project to cover a stretch of canal with solar panels.
The money is coming out of two multi-billion-dollar federal spending packages: the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. The deals are part of larger plans to dramatically cut Colorado River water use as water levels in Lake Mead have dropped to perilously low levels in recent years.
“Today’s agreement is truly historic in that it is by far the largest we have done,” said Stephen Roe Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community. “This kind of system conservation… will be the foundation on which we build our response with other partners in Arizona and California.”
“Today’s announcements and our partnerships with tribes like the Gila River Indian Community prove that tribes are a key part of the solution” to the Colorado River’s woes, Tommy Boudreau, deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior, said.
GRIC isn’t the only major water user that’s getting paid by Washington to leave water it’s entitled to in the lake. On Thursday, the mayors of Phoenix and Tucson noted their own cities’ commitments to conserve part of their Colorado River water entitlement.
Kate Gallego, mayor of Phoenix, said the city contributed 30,000 acre-feet to conservation efforts last year and is looking at increasing that number in 2023. Regina Romero, mayor of Tucson, said her city would leave 50,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead this year and 30,000 acre-feet in 2024 and 2025.
The plan to pay Colorado River water rights holders to leave their water in the river is part of a water strategy sometimes called “compensated conservation.” Under federal guidelines published last year, the federal government will pay water users at different rates for conservation plans on different timeframes: $330 per acre-foot for one-year deals, $365 per acre-foot for two-year deals, and the maximum $400 per acre-foot for three-year projects.
One acre-foot of water is 326,000 gallons. The Arizona Department of Water Resources says an acre-foot of water is enough to serve about three households in the Phoenix area for one year.
Arizona’s annual water use comes to about 7 million acre-feet per year, and the state is entitled to 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year. But federal guidelines have cut the state’s river water allotment by about 592,000 as a result of dwindling levels in Lake Mead. The latest conservation push is an effort to replenish Lake Mead’s supplies.
Even though it’s not the only one, the GRIC deal is particularly notable because the tribe has the single largest claim to Colorado River water pumped through CAP and has played an important role in conservation efforts in the past.
Following a landmark 2004 settlement, GRIC is entitled to about 312,000 acre-feet of CAP water annually. The tribe hasn’t typically used that full allotment itself (and the allotment has also been slashed in recent years following system-wide cuts), but it’s made use of the water by either banking it underground or selling off the rights to other Arizona water users.
In the past, GRIC had agreed to voluntarily leave some of its water in Lake Mead, hoping other water users would follow suit. But when other groups didn’t follow the tribe’s lead, GRIC announced last August that it would make use of its full allocation.
On Thursday, Roe Lewis, the GRIC governor, pointed to the announcements by Gallego and Romero as evidence of a collaboration going forward.
“I hope you all appreciate how this is really an Arizona-wide response to the need to reduce and conserve water in the lower basin,” he said.