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Gila River Indian Community threatens to withdraw from the drought contingency plan

Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam Colorado River Drought AP Photo
Posted at 2:21 PM, Feb 15, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 21:11:24-05

PHOENIX — Nearly 25 percent of the water which flows through the Central Arizona Project's canal belongs to the Gila River Indian Community. For Arizona to finalize any deal with the federal government on its drought contingency plan, it needs approval from the Gila River Tribal Council.

Gila Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis says that's now in jeopardy. "This is unacceptable to me and the Community Council and Arizona will have to choose now how it decides how to handle this."

What the Gila Community is upset about is a bill sponsored by Speaker of the House Rusty Bowers which it believes upends more than a century of Arizona Water Law. Governor Lewis says, "the law of the river is you use it or lose it and the limit is for five years. The Bowers bill essentially would take that away completely."

The Speaker told ABC15 he wrote the bill after traveling the state with other legislators to learn about Arizona's water needs. "We were made aware," Bowers said,"that dozens of rural families are being financially destroyed by ongoing litigation brought by the Gila River Indian Community. I initiated HB2476 to stop this from happening in the future." Bowers says the bill has nothing to do with DCP or the water supply for the community.

Democratic House Leader Charlene Fernandez accused Speaker Bowers of trying to blow up the drought plan. Fernandez said "it is absolutely unfathomable that the Speaker would go out of his way to provoke one of our most vital partners, and threaten to undermine Gila River Indian Community Water Rights."

The agreement the Tribal Council needs to approve, transfers 500-thousand acre feet of water thru 2026 to Arizona. For reference, an acre foot is the amount of water two families would use in a year. The transfer replaces the Colorado River water Arizona will lose as part of the Drought Contingency Plan. A significant amount of that water will go to Pinal County farmers.

In Tucson Friday, Governor Ducey said, "too much time and too much work has gone into this drought contingency plan to let anything get in it's way." The governor says he is reviewing the potential impacts of the Bowers bill and the Gila Community's threat to pull out of the DCP. The governor insists nothing is going to get in the way of the agreements Arizona has signed.

Governor Lewis says the Gila Community will not sign on to the DCP if the Bowers bill proceeds, "we don't see anyway they can do it without us."

But the Speaker may think otherwise. "It has always been my intention to move ahead with a DCP that includes the Community," Bowers said, "but if they want to pull out of a deal that benefits both the state and the community, that is their choice. We hope they will reconsider."

In the meantime, the Federal Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency who is overseeing the DCP said "we are hopeful and optimistic they will work through this latest issue."