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WASHINGTON — Leaders of two Arizona tribes on Wednesday asked lawmakers to support funding for critical water infrastructure development and pass a bill that would allow the sale of tribal water to others in drought-affected states.
White Mountain Apache Chairman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that her tribe needs more time and money to complete the long-delayed rural water system the federal government promised more than 10 years ago.
Amelia Flores, president of the Colorado River Indian Tribe, said her tribe had reached an agreement to reallocate some of its water resources but needed congressional approval to do so. But Flores said the hearing was not just about water rights and infrastructure.
“This bill will allow our tribes to have sovereignty, and it will enhance and strengthen our sovereignty over tribal peoples,” Flores said after the hearing.
Both Flores and Lee Gatewood have called for urgent action, citing a severe drought in western states.
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“This is a critical time for the Colorado River Basin. We’re facing a megadrought and Arizona is ground zero,” Flores said in her testimony.
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz, who co-sponsored the two bills with Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., echoed the need for action for the tribe and the entire state as it faces historic water shortages.
“This issue is a priority for me because Arizona is on the front lines of this megadrought, and in many cases tribal nations are among the most vulnerable to it,” Kelly told the committee. “At the same time, tribes have important water rights that can give them a leadership position in water conservation.”
The White Mountain Apache Act would give the tribe an additional two years, from 2023 to 2025, to break ground on a rural water system to replace faulty wells on the reservation. The project calls for the construction of a dam at the fork of the White River, as well as a water treatment and distribution system that supplies water directly to tribal members.
The project was initially committed by the federal government in 2010 to resolve the tribe’s water claims, but was delayed due to environmental reviews and engineering issues. Kelly’s bill would also add another $250 million to the program to address delays and cost overruns.
“The tribe’s current water sources and infrastructure remain severely inadequate to meet the current needs of our retention community,” Lee-Gatewood said in her testimony. “We desperately need a long-term solution to meet our drinking water needs.”
With continued federal support, the plant could provide drinking water to the community as early as 2028, Lee-Gatewood said.
The second bill would allow the Colorado River Indian Tribes to distribute some of the Colorado River water to other communities in Arizona and reinvest the revenue to improve water infrastructure on tribal lands.
Flores said the tribe has taken steps to reduce the amount of water it takes from the river, leaving more than 200,000 acre-feet in Lake Mead since 2016. She said the tribe wanted to do more, including diverting some of the water to protect habitat elsewhere on the river, but they couldn’t do that without congressional approval.
“Currently, we are unable to provide water to non-reserved river habitats that are suffering from falling water levels,” Flores said. “This bill will help us support native flora and endangered fish recovery plans along other stretches of the river, as we did when we booked.”
With the revenue from renting out water to other parts of Arizona, the tribes will be able to invest in water conservation programs to help conserve water in the Colorado River, she said.
Lee-Gatewood also explained how the proposed rural water system would enhance tribal sovereignty by giving the White Mountain Apaches control over their water on tribal lands.
“I cannot overstate the importance of our water rights settlements and the rural water systems of the White Mountain Apache tribe to the health and welfare of our people,” she said.
“If this issue is not addressed, the completion of rural water system projects will be threatened, increasing the ultimate cost to tribes and the United States, and delaying the delivery of life-sustaining drinking water to our reserved communities,” Lee-Gatewood said.
Flores said after the hearing that she was optimistic the bills would pass, even if they wouldn’t be as quick as the tribe had hoped.
“This is just the beginning,” Flores said. “We’re at the door, we just haven’t gotten in yet.”