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Arizona Tribes Wade Into The Water Business


Rain and snow from El Nino are filling reservoirs in the West this season, but that doesn't end questions about where cities will get water in years to come. One source could be Native American tribes, as Will Stone of member station KJZZ reports.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: When settlers dammed the Gila River in the 1800s, the way of life for one of the South's most enduring agricultural societies began to unravel.

DAVID DEJONG: It literally took the entire flow of the river.

STONE: David DeJong runs this construction project that will eventually carry water to growers across the Gila River Indian Community south of Phoenix.

DEJONG: In fact, there are recorded documents that indicate some of the off-reservation farmers intentionally wasted the water so that there would be no water down here on the reservation.

STONE: The river was woven into the tribe's very identity, says DeJong.

DEJONG: In their own language, these are the Akimel O'odham, the river people.

STONE: Next to him, an irrigation canal empties water into the dry riverbed. It represents years of negotiations that resulted in a water settlement just over a decade ago, the largest in U.S. history at the time. And now the tribe is finally seeing the benefits. DeJong says soon, they expect the trees and wildlife that once lived along the river to return. And -

DEJONG: As importantly, the community is recharging water for future use.

STONE: Once water has seeped into the aquifer below, the community can then sell that valuable resource as credits to central Arizona cities.

STEPHEN ROE LEWIS: We're really at a crossroads with our water settlement.

STONE: Stephen Roe Lewis is governor of the Gila River Indian Community. They're entitled to more water from the parched Colorado River than anyone else in the region, but they still have to pay for it and the infrastructure. That's expensive, so they've banded with a nearby utility to sell some of this banked water.

LEWIS: The marketing of our water credits and leasing, that's going to be critical to the ongoing water supply in the future. That's really going to be a driving economic force.

STONE: In other words, the committee pipes in the water, stores it up, and then sells it locally. Lewis believes the tribes will be major players in the water market in coming years. Like everyone, though, they are still subject to the realities of a water-stretched West. Daniel McCool is a professor at the University of Utah, and has authored books on the subject.

DANIEL MCCOOL: The tribes negotiated their settlement in this context of a Western water policy that's really coming to an end.

STONE: Some western tribes have access to large supplies thanks to settlements. But with sources like the Colorado River over-allocated, he says some may be forced to renegotiate. As part of its settlement, the Gila River community already accepted certain restrictions on the marketing of water.

MCCOOL: A lot of people just hated the idea that a tribe might get a quantified amount of water and then open that up to the highest bidder because it would be western cities.

STONE: So water can only go to cities in Arizona, not, say, to Las Vegas or LA. Still, McCool believes their settlement was overall favorable. And ultimately, the tribe's business plan is in the service of a greater cause, reviving the agrarian and cultural roots for the next generation - young farmers on the reservation like Cimarron Cabello and his wife, who inherited a modest plot of windswept desert.

CIMARRON CABELLO: We're just trying to bring it back, I guess. Like the water's coming back for the Gila River, we've got to bring the farming back and all.

STONE: In a year, they hope to have it in full production and more land on the way. That's exactly what tribal governor Stephen Roe Lewis envisions as the Gila flows again.

LEWIS: When you actually can smell and taste the water firsthand, that shows that our sacred water is back and that we have a bright future ahead of us.

STONE: An economic reawakening on the reservation is what Lewis hopes for, fed by ancient traditions and a new entrepreneurial spirit. For NPR News, I'm Will Stone at the Gila River Indian Community. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Will Stone is a former reporter at KUNR Public Radio.