Tribal group threatens to pull out of Arizona water-sharing plan
PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature approved a deal, but now a Native American tribe could back out of Arizona’s Drought Contingency Plan due to a bill that it says threatens its water rights.
“We have a very hard time in seeing how (the bill) was not intended to be a direct attack on the community,” Gila River Indian Community attorney Donald Pongrace said.
State House Speaker Rusty Bowers introduced HB 2476, which would change the state’s “use it or lose it” water rights law.
Bowers said he introduced it because a group of farmers has been “financially destroyed” by lawsuits from the Gila River community.
Since December 2017, the tribe has entered into settlement negotiations stemming from the court actions it filed against corporations and individuals, Pongrace said.
He said his client reached a deal to take less Colorado River water through the Drought Contingency Plan, approved by Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers last month.
The governor’s office said the tribe got $30 million in exchange.
But HB 2476, which Pongrace called “bad water policy,” could cause the Gila River Indian Community to decline signing final paperwork for the drought plan.
The tribe’s governor said in a Facebook post that “when forced to choose, the community would come down on the side of protecting its water settlement, and that as a result, unless the bill were withdrawn … the community will not be in a position to sign on to any of the agreements necessary for the successful implementation of the AZ DCP Implementation Plan.”
Bowers said it’s “unfortunate and inappropriate” that the tribe is leveraging its support for the drought plan to defeat his measure.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has given Arizona and California a March 4 deadline to get agreements from all parties within their states, including the Gila River community, or the agency will start gathering comments from Western governors about what to do next.
Under the Arizona drought plan, the Gila River community would provide water for farmers in central Arizona who otherwise would lose it and would store water in Lake Mead on the Arizona-Nevada border that is instrumental to the drought plan.
Editor’s note: Rep. Bowers said Tuesday he is putting HB 2476 on hold following a public hearing.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.