From The Arizona Capitol Times (Howard Fischer):
House Speaker Rusty Bowers is proposing changes to state laws in a way he said will protect the rights of farmers in the Safford Valley who have been “scratching it out” to water from the Gila River.
But attorney Don Pongrace, who represents the Gila River Indian Community, said what Bowers proposes to do would effectively overturn and nullify a federal appellate court ruling, which said those upstream who have not used the water have forfeited those rights.
And he said courts have ruled those rights — and the water that goes with it — belong to the tribe.
“These people are not scratching out an existence,” he said of the farmers Bowers wants to help. “They’ve been stealing water from the community since 1870.”
Pongrace said if Bowers pushes HB 2476, the tribe will withdraw from the plan for how the state will deal with the expected shortage of water coming from Lake Mead. That’s crucial because the state is counting on about 500,000 acre-feet of water from the tribe, much of it to help Pinal County farmers deal with the cutback in Colorado River water.
“This is a direct assault on the community’s water rights,” Pongrace told Capitol Media Services.
“It’s a poison pill,” he said. “If this bill were to be considered and enacted into law, the community will withdraw its prior approval (of the drought-contingency plan) and, more importantly, its water.”
Bowers is undeterred.
“I’m not going to back down,” he said.
And he lashed out at the tribe for trying to link the issues.
“This is just showing their mentality to everybody who gets in their way,” Bowers said. “It’s all ‘Our way or no way.’”
Pongrace, however, said the community doesn’t see it that way.
He said on the one hand, the state is seeking the tribe’s cooperation and its water for the drought-contingency plan. That, he said, is inconsistent with the state moving to undermine the tribe’s claim to Gila River water.
He said the state can’t have both.
“This is not negotiable,” Pongrace said, saying he is speaking for tribal Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis.
“You cannot take actions like this without consequences,” he said of the Bowers legislation.
“He can decide to try to take this up,” Pongrace continued. “And the consequence he’s going to face as it stands right now, is essentially no DCP.”
At this point, he said he believes the tribe has the upper hand.