Along a portion of State Route 87 — better known as Old Hunt Highway in the heart of the Gila River Indian reservation between Alma School and Dobson roads near Sacaton, Olberg Bridge reaches across desert that used to be a river.
The Gila River.
Deteriorated and covered with graffiti, the bridge represents what used to be, what the area has become, but what can flow again in future years: water and economic sustainability.
Water in the Gila River was the main ingredient for the lifeline of the Gila River Indian Community but it has been dried up for decades. Now, there is hope that it can return.
An unprecedented water rights settlement is bringing back stewardship of millions of gallons of water for the Gila River Indian Community.
Salt River Project and Gila River announced in October the completion of an agreement to help restore the river and make economic use of the Central Arizona Project allocation of water originating from the Colorado River.
The Gila River community will be able to replenish a big part of its culture as it will receive 653,500-acre feet of water (325,851 gallons per acre foot) per year. It marks the first water bank where an Indian community is the main player that will include recharge basins to replace the need for dams and reservoirs flowing through central Arizona.
The Indian community’s irrigation infrastructure will not be fully built until 2029. In the interim, the community is not physically able to use its full CAP entitlement but still wishes to do so in order to begin seeing a return of the riparian habitat that is vital to the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh peoples.
The agreement and partnership also thrusts the Gila River community into being a key player at the table for the future water needs for other governmental entities, municipalities, industries and the Roosevelt Water Conservation District.
Although East Valley officials say they have sufficient water supplies to last them and their industries, this historical agreement could impact them in the future after towns and cities are built out and more industries set up shop or expand.
Impact on East Valley
East Valley cities, including Mesa, Tempe, Chandler and Gilbert, all have major anchor industries and entities such as Intel, Arizona State University and health-care facilities that all use a lot of water, as do utility companies who also need to use water for plant operations.
But water officials from those cities say it is too early to tell whether they will have to seek out water supplies from Gila River, though they are "interested" in discussing options and possibilities of tapping into that water supply in the future.
Mesa, Tempe and Chandler water officials said they were not at the table for this agreement between SRP and Gila River as they have been in talks with the White Mountain Apache Indian community for 100-year leases to fulfill current needs.
Kathryn Sorensen, director of the water resource department for Mesa, said that the city has enough water supplies to cover development within its borders and also is expected to seal a new water deal with the White Mountain Apache Tribe in the next six months. However, the city possibly could seek out water from the Gila River community as an alternative for other needs.
Right now, Mesa provides 5-acre feet of reclaimed water to the White Mountain community that it uses for agricultural purposes in exchange for 4-acre feet of CAP water, Sorensen said.
"We’re supportive of the partnership," Sorensen said of the recent agreement between SRP and Gila River. "It provides an alternative to fulfill water supply needs in the future."
"There’s a whole lot going on in the water world, and the partnership between SRP and Gila River is just one of them," said Eric Kaminski, water resource manager for Tempe.
Of the three largest East Valley cities, Tempe is the only one that has completed a deal with the White Mountain Indian community, which now can divert CAP water from the Salt River.
In 2009, Tempe completed a water agreement with the White Mountain community, and Chandler — which maintains it has enough water supply to last at least until projected buildout in the city around 2025 — also is fine-tuning an agreement with the White Mountain Apaches. Chandler also is working on a deal with Intel to meet the computer microchip manufacturer’s water supply needs when it moves forward on a $300 million expansion project that was unveiled earlier this year. And when that time comes, the water provided would be from CAP, said Doug Toy, Chandler’s water resources engineer.
"We were not at the table during the agreement talks with SRP and Gila River, but we would keep our options open," Toy said. "We just have to look at our demands, their demands and when our supplies will come online."
Although East Valley cities are not beating the drum for water from Gila River now, Kaminski said that if Arizona has another dry winter, the East Valley could see an SRP water allocation reduction by 2014 or 2015, causing them to rethink their needs.
Right now, Roosevelt Lake, which is the largest of six SRP reservoirs in the state is at 45 percent capacity and it can’t go much lower than that before it would trigger SRP to reduce its water allocation to cities and possibly cause cities to purchase credits for water supplies that will be provided in Gila River’s underground storage projects.
"We have no plans to seek water supplies from the Gila River Indian Community at this time, but it is something we keep in our longterm planning options," Kaminski said.
Invigorating culture and economy
The SRP/Gila River agreement also could set the standard for future water management agreements with Indian communities throughout the United States.
"It’s a unique agreement and infrastructure project," said Dave Roberts, senior director of water resource management for SRP. "It’s all about strategic use of the community’s water rights. It’s also a great opportunity for the East Valley and economic development in the region."
More than 225 miles of canals and water laterals make up the water delivery system that begins at the San Carlos Irrigation Project near Coolidge from the southeast and goes to the northwest corner of the reservation near the border of Laveen.
The agreement with SRP provides needed expertise in exchange for access to a portion of the community’s water supply for certain projects and during drought years. The community will use some of its long-term storage credits for itself and will sell a certain proportion of them to cities such as Mesa and Chandler, towns, land developers, industry and others.
The plan includes developing underground storage projects to store thousands of gallons of water and upgrading existing infrastructure to handle millions of gallons of Central Arizona Project water set to flow their way — 311,800 acre-feet of water, 20 percent of SRP’s water supply that it provides to its 950,000 customers. The completion for the project is slated for 2029. SRP will install the first underground storage project in Queen Creek, possibly by the end of the year at a cost ranging from $6 million to $12 million. After that, Gila River has 13 possible sites for the future installation of underground storage projects throughout the course of the plan.
For the Gila River community, the arrangement with SRP has the potential to fulfill the community’s long-held dream of restoring a portion of the Gila River, bolstering its agriculture and restoring wetlands.
"This could really invigorate our culture again," said Stephen Roe Lewis, lieutenant governor for the Gila River Indian Community.
After SRP installs the first long-term storage container in Queen Creek, Gila River will earmark property for the other containers of water.
The community will develop its first underground storage and riparian restoration project along the Gila River near the Oldberg Bridge.
Barney Enos Jr., a District 4 Gila River tribal councilman, said, "The river has a life of its own. Whether it’s re-created for agricultural purposes, it also can help bring back native and traditional birds, plants and insects. Once the ecology returns, so can the economy. We are just beginning to figure out how we’ll be meeting the challenges of water delivery.
"Down the line, this is important and will be a model for resolving important issues in the future not just for the region, but for the state," Enos added. "We’re at the table for not only water delivery, but for natural resource planning as well as renewable energy planning and allocation. This will provide us opportunity, but it’s also a big challenge for us."
In the next 20 years, Gila River will be making 100,000-acre feet of CAP water available to SRP during years when it, too, is down in water because of drought as well as eventually providing 30,000-acre feet to municipal water providers to assist them in meeting the state’s assured water supply requirements.
Rodney Lewis, the father of Stephen Lewis, who served as legal counsel and lieutenant governor for the Gila River Indian Community for many years said of the water rights settlement, "This gives us an opportunity to re-establish our stewardship of the water."
"We have to hand it to the community," Roberts said. "They had a need, we had a need, and we came together to create a unique partnership."
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