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Accord has SRP, tribes sharing expertise, water rights

PHOENIX — As the prolonged drought continues, SRP lays plans to keep water available in the event of shortages.

On the Gila River Indian Community just south of Phoenix, leaders are looking to restore the Gila and its wetlands.

A new partnership between the water and electric utility and tribal leaders is touted as addressing both challenges.

In return for providing the reservation its expertise in managing water, SRP will have access to 100,000 acre-feet of Central Arizona Project water in times of severe shortage.

As part of the 20-year agreement, SRP will help the tribe use CAP water to make the Gila River flow through the community and to store water through recharge.

“What this demonstrates is how we can work together to solve mutual problems,” said Dave Roberts, executive manager of water rights and contracts for SRP. “We have challenges, they have challenges, and I think it shows the Indian community they can reach out to us and we can resolve historical differences and work together to solve mutual challenges.”

Community Councilman Barney Enos Jr. said that ultimately the tribe hopes to maximize water use across the community with a delivery system that supports farming.

“We’re using resources in a way that meets the needs of many areas in terms of water, something that benefits us equally,” he said.

According to Roberts, SRP and the community are still discussing terms under which the utility would obtain the water in times of shortage, including whether it would pay for the rights and what the cost would be.

For nearly a century, the Gila River Indian Community struggled to restore its water rights. In 2004, it received rights to 311,800 acre-feet of CAP water per year under the Arizona Water Settlements Act, making it the largest allocator of CAP water in the state.

The community’s long-term goal is to create a self-sufficient agricultural economy through building of irrigation infrastructure, according to Jason Hauter, an attorney for the community.

“Historically and traditionally it’s important to them,” Hauter said. “They would like to see water made available for smaller-scale farming where they can grow in their yards or nearby. It’s the idea of getting that infrastructure to deliver water to places they can’t get it now and getting back to the original economy of Gila River Indian Community.”

That planned infrastructure isn’t expected to be completed until 2029. Until then, the community is unable to make full use of their rights to the water supply.

“We came up with a program for them to make economic use of the water and use those revenues that would be associated with the economic use to help fix their infrastructure and also to put in place recharge projects to help pay for the riparian restoration.”

According to Roberts, recharge projects will allow the community to store water underground to be used later and accrue long-term water storage credits to CAP water that can be sold.

Sandra Fabritz-Whitney, director of Arizona Department of Water Resources, said this also will help groundwater supplies.

“Using a supply not being utilized right now can offset negative, potential pumping of groundwater in the short-term and better secure a long-term water supply,” she said.