From Circle of Blue (Brett Walton):
Having gained an endorsement from its members, a tribe with one of the largest and most secure claims to water in the Colorado River basin will seek approval from Congress to lease water for use off of its riverside reservation.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, have lands that stretch along 56 miles of the lower Colorado River. Eighty-five percent of the reservation is in Arizona, with the remainder in California. The tribe’s right to divert nearly 720,000 acre-feet from the river is more than twice the water that is allocated to the state of Nevada.
By law, that water is to be used on the reservation. But if CRIT convinces Congress to allow off-reservation leasing, the change would free up a large volume of water that would be highly desirable for cities and industries in Arizona’s fast-growing Sun Corridor, spanning Phoenix and Tucson, where four out of five state residents live.
CRIT members signaled their approval on January 19, with 63 percent voting in favor of pursuing legal changes that would allow leasing. The vote was prompted by an attempt to recall all nine tribal council members last spring over some residents’ objections to leasing.
“This referendum was a successful effort of our people to understand the value and importance of our natural resources,” Dennis Patch, CRIT chairman, said in a statement. “Our members have shown they understand that it is time to make our water work for all of us. With this responsibility in mind, our Council will continue to work on ways to protect and maximize full economic benefits for our people.”
CRIT has said that it could make as much as 150,000 acre-feet available for off-reservation use in the next decades. The tribe’s administration referred questions about the leasing vote to the attorney general, who did not return repeated phone calls from Circle of Blue…
Robert Glennon, a University of Arizona law professor who focuses on water policy, called CRIT “an enormously powerful player” in those negotiations.
“The tribe is absolutely critical to the willingness of the parties in Arizona to go forward with the drought plan,” Glennon told Circle of Blue. “Critical because of their willingness to put such a large amount of water on the table to prop up Lake Mead or to potentially lease water to cities.”
CRIT pledged to fallow farmland and leave 50,000 acre-feet per year in Lake Mead for three years, starting in 2020. For its effort, the tribe will be paid $38 million dollars.
CRIT’s water is desirable because the rights are among the most senior in the state, meaning they would be fulfilled before other users if all claims to the river cannot be delivered. The flow of the Colorado River is declining and the addition of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is causing the basin to become drier.
The relative security of senior water rights is a lure for cities, which value reliable water. Preserving that seniority is essential for any lease deal, said Mike Pearce, an attorney with Maguire, Pearce, and Storey, a water law firm in Phoenix.
“It’s an attractive marketing point and all effort would be made to protect [the status of the senior rights] if the water were to be leased,” Pearce told Circle of Blue.
Tribes, in general, are powerful players in the Colorado River basin, holding approximately 20 percent of the water rights, some 2.9 million acre-feet. In interior Arizona and in other states they have negotiated lease deals that secure long-term water availability for cities while bringing in revenue for the tribe.
CRIT hopes to be next to do so. Larry MacDonnell, a water law professor at the University of Colorado, told Circle of Blue that CRIT’s banking of water in Lake Mead is a “potentially helpful precedent” that acknowledges the tribe’s ability to provide water for use off of the reservation.
Since 2016, CRIT has participated in a small-scale water banking project, in which the tribe fallowed nearly 1,600 acres and left the conserved water, roughly 8,500 acre-feet, in Lake Mead.