Apache tribe could complicate Gila diversion plans — Silver City Daily Press

Gila River watershed. Graphic credit: Wikimedia

From The Silver City Daily Press (Geoffrey Plant):

The Gila River winds through many lands before and after it enters Arizona, including the territory of some Native American tribes that historically have relied on the water for their homes and their crops. One of those, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has thrown shade on any future New Mexico Unit diversion by virtue of their refusing to be a party to virtually any aspect of the project, or its affiliated agreements.

The 2004 federal Arizona Water Settlements Act was intended to address the fact that some communities — particularly Native American communities — had long been on the short end of the stick when it came to water rights. The Central Arizona Project, known as the CAP, is a major diversion of Colorado River water that began supplying water to Phoenix and Tucson in the late 1980s — but it is only an outsized example of diversions that impacted downstream communities in southern Arizona over the years.

Four New Mexico counties are also included in the settlement legislation: Catron, Grant, Hidalgo and Luna. As a result, the New Mexico Unit of the Central Arizona Project was created, making available millions of dollars from the settlement. Farmers and landowners in southwestern New Mexico banded together to form the New Mexico Entity of the Central Arizona Project aiming to spend that money.

Should the N.M. CAP Entity proceed with their plan to divert up to 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila and San Francisco rivers, a rarely discussed sticking point lies ahead for the project. The AWSA that provides the money for the project includes by reference what is called the Consumptive Use and Forbearance Agreement, or “CUFA,” a deal among the federal government and downstream users of the Gila River.

Before the N.M. CAP Entity could start diverting water — should the project come to fruition — there are requirements that it must satisfy, most of which revolve around the San Carlos Reservoir, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on San Carlos Apache tribal land. Most of the water users in that area and downstream signed on to the CUFA in 2005 and 2006, and are therefore guaranteed exchange water, or “credits,” for lost water resulting from the diversion upstream.

“The CUFA is a complex document,” said Dominique Work, a lawyer with the N.M. Interstate Stream Commission. “One requirement is that New Mexico can’t start diverting water unless there is at least 30,000 acre-feet in the San Carlos Reservoir at the beginning of each year.”

Even when the reservoir has 30,000 acre-feet in it at the beginning of the year, sometimes the water quality is poor, which is also a sticking point. The 22 water users that signed on to the CUFA agreed to forgo the right to sue over water quality or quantity.

But in a glaring exception, the San Carlos Tribe did not sign on to the agreement. They have also refused to allow a pipeline — as part of the AWSA — to be built on their land.

“The pipeline would provide water from farmers in the Safford, Arizona, area,” as part of the water settlement, Work said. “The farmers were given $15 million in the AWSA to build that pipeline. They built it until they got to the land boundary of the tribe, and the tribe said, ‘You aren’t building that on our reservation.’ So there is a means to get the water — and that is a prerequisite.”

Since the tribe has both refused to complete the project and refused to sign the CUFA, it is debatable whether their water needs would be met by the half-built pipeline.

Work asserted that the “mechanism is satisfied” for getting the tribe the water it is due. But it appears that the tribe — which Entity Director Anthony Gutierrez points out “only get[s] 6,000 acre-feet of water per year from the reservoir” — apparently wants their water to come from the Gila River. And that raises water quality issues.

Stephanie Russo Baca, staff attorney at the Utton Transboundary Resources Center at the University of New Mexico School of Law, isn’t so certain that San Carlos wouldn’t have standing to sue. She interprets the AWSA as giving the tribe the right to litigate against the Entity and whoever else it feels is culpable for low water quality.

“The Arizona Water Settlements Act states that the United States — on behalf of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — or the tribe itself can assert any claim against any party, including any claim for water rights, injury to water rights, or injury to water quality,” she said. “Even though the San Carlos Apache Tribe is a non-signatory to the CUFA, this does not preclude them from asserting their rights.”

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