Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Arid Arizona, a Watershed Deal on Water ; Pact with Gila River Indians Could Become Model for Tribes Nationally

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Arid Arizona, a Watershed Deal on Water ; Pact with Gila River Indians Could Become Model for Tribes Nationally

Article excerpt

This Indian reservation south of Phoenix, its barren landscape littered with broken-down cars, is seemingly the last place you'd expect to find a deal involving big bucks.

Yet thanks to its plentiful supply of water - a prized resource in this region - the Gila River Indian Community may soon be flush with $200 million in federal funds.

Indeed, this tribe has just driven a hard bargain with Phoenix officials, water utilities, and agricultural interests over water rights. According to this key deal, whose funding still needs congressional approval, almost 500 billion gallons of the Salt and Gila Rivers will be diverted yearly to farms and thirsty, rapidly growing cities like Phoenix.

In recent years, native Americans across the nation have been pressing for better compensation for the use - or destruction - of their resources. California's Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians, for example, have finalized a deal awarding them $14.2 million and a large addition to their reservation. South Dakota's Oglala and Rosebud Sioux tribes are also pressing the federal government to settle claims.

But the Gila River agreement could become the largest in the nation's history. In fact, it may serve as a model for other settlements, showing how water-dependent urban areas and chronically impoverished reservations can both benefit from negotiation.

"It's a time in history where I think everyone would like to see some stability in the allocation of water," says Rod Lewis, general counsel for the tribe. "The cities would like to see it. We'd like to see it. We'd all like to plan for the future."

Tribal water rights were originally set forth in the Winters Doctrine, which came out of 1908 Supreme Court decision. In ruling against Montana farmers who wanted to use Indian water, the justices of the high court said that tribes must be allocated water sufficient to meet the needs of the reservations. The Supreme Court reinforced this decision in a landmark 1963 case involving the Colorado River.

But since many tribal communities lack the canals and pipelines necessary for delivering water to their reservations, they often have only "paper rights," says Joseph Feller, a water-policy expert at the Arizona State University College of Law in Tempe. This, in turn, has meant that a significant amount of tribal water has been used by other people, often without just compensation.

As tribes demand that their rights be recognized, however, those de facto arrangements are under fire. For example, Paiute tribal groups are threatening litigation against Los Angeles for municipal pumping from their water table. In northern Arizona, Navajo activists are demanding new negotiations over water settlements with the federal government that they consider unfair.

For non-tribal water users, from cities to industry to agriculture, these moves could mean higher costs. …

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