From Arizona Central (Ian James):
The Gila River Indian Community is entitled to about a fourth of the Colorado River water that passes through the Central Arizona Project’s canal. Much of the water flows to the reservation, where it helps irrigate about 36,000 acres of farmland planted with crops including wheat, sorghum, alfalfa, cotton and corn.
Because it holds this large water entitlement, the community has become a key player in efforts to unblock stalled negotiations in Arizona among state agencies, cities, irrigation districts and tribes on a plan to take less water from the dwindling Colorado River.
If Arizona manages to reach a deal — and it’s unclear whether it will — the involvement of the community and its leader, Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, is likely to play a critical part in the agreement.
Lewis has been deeply involved in the talks, offering to help while also taking a strong stance against any proposal that would undermine the Gila River community’s historic water settlement, which his late father, Rodney Lewis, helped win in 2004 after a decades-long legal fight.
The governor said he thinks the parties are close to clinching an agreement on the proposed Drought Contingency Plan, or DCP. But he also said there are several principles he won’t compromise on, including defending his community’s hard-won water rights.
“Water settlements, to us they are sacrosanct. Water settlements have to be preserved,” Lewis told The Arizona Republic in an interview. “Those can’t be gutted.”
For Lewis, the drive to defend his community’s water settlement is a personal issue and one that’s bound up in the long history of how Arizona tribes saw their water taken away starting more than 150 years ago.
The Gila River Indian Community includes people from two groups, the Akimel O’odham and the Pee-Posh, and has about 23,000 members, about 15,000 of whom live on the reservation south of Phoenix.
The O’odham’s ancient ancestors, the Huhugam, created a thriving agricultural civilization in the desert centuries before the arrival of non-native settlers in Arizona…
Lewis’ father, as attorney for the Gila River Indian Community, fought for years to win back their water. And in 2004, the community finally secured its water rights as part of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which was signed by President George W. Bush. Rodney Lewis died in April at age 77…
“We have fought to regain our water settlement, our water rights. That historic struggle has really shaped our community, to where we do not take for granted any drop of our water, what we call in our language the O’odham language ‘shudag’ – water is life,” he said. “We have survived, we have endured. But we understand as a people all too well when water, that precious resource, is taken away from us.”
He said it’s clear that all water users will have to deal with an increasingly limited supply of water.