FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – The White Mountain Apache Tribe is moving closer to securing a water delivery system on its eastern Arizona reservation after the Interior Department signed off on an agreement that quantifies the tribe’s water rights.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday that her department will work with the tribe to ensure that a dam to capture water from the White River is built and that pipelines send clean water to people’s homes.
“We do not want any child to have black water when they turn on the faucet,” she said. “We also know that water is essential to life for all people that share these resources.”
The agreement is the last of four American Indian water rights settlements signed by President Barack Obama in 2010 to be executed. The legislation includes more than $200 million for the water delivery system. Another $79 million will go to projects that include a fish hatchery and rehabilitating recreational lakes.
The agreement resolves the tribe’s longstanding claims to water from the Gila and Little Colorado rivers and allows communities off the reservation to lease water that the tribe cannot immediately use. It still must be approved by a judge overseeing some 80,000 claims to water from both of the rivers, which could come in early 2015.
Dave Roberts, senior director of water resource management for the Salt River Project, said the settlements are carefully crafted to ensure they don’t impact other parties’ claims in court.
The tribe plans to build a dam on the north fork of the White River to hold 8,000 acre-feet of water that will be sent through a treatment plant and into a pipeline to serve the tribe’s major population centers from White River to Cibecue.
“This water rights agreement is as important to the future survival of the White Mountain Apache Tribe as the peace we negotiated with the United States Army in 1871 to remain on our aboriginal land,” tribal Chairman Ronnie Lupe said during a signing ceremony in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick grew up in the tribal community of White River next to the Lupe family and introduced legislation to settle the tribe’s water rights as a freshman lawmaker, along with former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl. Water carried through a pipe from the White River to Kirkpatrick’s family home wasn’t drinkable, so it first had to be boiled. She recalled always seeing a big pan of water on the stove from which the family could drink.
“It wasn’t until years later that I realized in the rest of the country, you could turn on a faucet, put a glass under it and drink that water,” she said. “Today is a lifetime dream come true.”
The agreement signed Tuesday allows the tribe to divert 99,000 acre-feet of water annually – 74,000 acre-feet of surface and ground water, and 25,000 acre-feet of Central Arizona Project water. The amount that will be consumed is much less at 52,000 acre-feet that comes from Arizona’s allocation of Colorado River water, the Salt River Project and the Roosevelt Water Conservation District.
Roberts said the loss of 23,000 acre-feet of water will impact SRP in dry years, resulting in water being drawn from storage. But he said the settlement was good for SRP and the tribe.
“Chairman Lupe talked about how it was an equitable settlement, that we did it in complete trust with each other,” Roberts said. “I think it’s going to work out well for the tribe.”
The city of Phoenix and its suburbs, for example, will benefit in having certainty over available water supplies. The tribe, whose priority for surface and groundwater predate Arizona’s statehood, can lease its portion of Central Arizona Project water to communities in Maricopa, Pinal, Pima and Yavapai counties for up to 100 years, but it cannot market the water outside of Arizona.
The water the White Mountain Apache Tribe received from the Central Arizona Project was set aside for the tribe in a 2004 settlement that resolved water rights claims of the Gila River Indian Community and the Tohono O’odham Nation.
The White Mountain Apache water agreement was one of four authorized in the Claims Resolution Act that was included in a 2010 settlement between American Indians and the government over more than a century’s worth of squandered and mismanaged land trust royalties. The other water rights settlements authorized in 2010 but not executed until 2012 and earlier this year were reached with the Crow Tribe of Montana and New Mexico pueblos.
Obama has signed off on two other American Indian water rights settlements during his presidency.