Gila River Indian Community proposal for post-2026 Colorado River Management

Given the apparently unproductive state-to-state negotiations over post-2026 management of the Colorado River, it’s worth examining, in our search for a path forward, some of the other proposals submitted to the Department of the Interior. (If you need some bedtime reading….)

One of the most interesting comes from the Gila River Indian Community. (Their March 29 letter to Reclamation lays it out.) Spanning the Gila River along the southern edge of Phoenix, the Gila River Indian Community has long done a masterful job of leveraging water in defense of its sovereignty – or maybe sovereignty in defense of its water?

This 2021 piece by Sharon Udasin does a great job of explaining the GRIC’s success:

A riverbed that has been parched since the end of the 19th century — a portion of the historic lifeblood of the Gila River Indian Community — is now coursing again with water, luring things like cattails and birds back to its shores.

“You add water and stuff just immediately starts coming back naturally. Birds have returned and it’s just such a different experience,” says Jason Hauter, an attorney and a Community member. “It’s amazing how much has returned.”

The water, the cattails, and the birds, are part of a complex legal tangle that led to the 2004 Arizona Water Settlements Act, which ensured Central Arizona Project water – Colorado River imports, pumped up into the Gila River Valley from the river’s main stem – to replace water stolen from the Gila River Indian Community by settlers a century before.

Access to that water has made the Community a power player in central Arizona water politics. But that water is now at risk as a result of efforts to cope with declining flows on the Colorado River. In particular, the Community views the Lower Basin States’ proposal for post-2026 river management as (my words, not theirs) an assault on their sovereignty. Here’s how they put it in their March letter to Reclamation:

Our initial analysis of the LB Alternative indicates that under their static reduction proposals, at a minimum, the Community’s Colorado River supplies that we are currently using would likely be reduced by 130,000 acre-feet, 42% of our entire Colorado River supply, even after Arizona’s firming obligations are met. These cuts
would become more draconian under both the LB Alternative and the UB Alternative when additional reductions beyond 1.5 million acre-feet are needed, which would be often based on our review of the various models we have seen.

Allocation of CAP water is crazy complicated, and I’m still trying to get my head around these details. But the Gila River Indian Community is essentially arguing that in the current proposal, which calls for cuts deep enough to eliminate the “structural deficit,” Arizona is essentially bargaining away the Community’s water.

So the Community has concerns with the Lower Basin proposal. But it has even greater concerns about the Upper Basin proposal, which argues that if even deeper cuts are needed, they should all fall on the Lower Basin.

The UB Alternative does not appear to us to present a reasonable or balanced approach at all, shifting all of the burden for addressing the current drought crisis onto the Lower Basin States.

The footnote to that paragraph is wonderful:

Reclamation has indicated that it will model any reasonable set of assumptions presented for consideration. The Community, for its part, does not view the UB Alternative as a reasonable set of assumptions, so the Community would understand and support Reclamation if it determined not to model the UB Alternative.

The Gila River Indian Community offers an alternative suggestion for managing Lower Basin cuts that’s super interesting. Rather than what the Lower Basin Proposal offers – essentially a negotiated who-cuts-what set of numbers based on talks among the three states – the Community suggests cuts across the Lower Basin proportionally, based on the calculation of evaporation and system losses (which we’re now supposed to shorten, apparently, as ESL):

We believe the United States has the authority to apply ESL to consumptive use in the Lower Basin in a proportional manner. It is our understanding that United States believes it has the authority to apply ESL to consumptive use in the Lower Basin on a proportional basis and, as such, we believe this should be modeled.

The Community’s letter includes a strong emphasis on the federal government’s trust responsibility to the basin’s 30 Tribal Sovereigns. The letter makes clear that the federal government has a legal obligation “to find alternative water supplies for tribes that will be negatively affected by the Post-2026 Operations.” As Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis put it at this month’s Getches-Wilkinson conference in Boulder, “First peoples of this land should be the last to be cut.”


  1. One cannot believe a thng the U.S. Gov. Says. Their policies have changed with the wind. They have stolen and mismanaged water. Everyone with a water interest turns a blind eye to others who are being ignored to satisfy their view of their reality. The GRIC and other tribes have seniority and under the Mendenhall Doctrine of relation back, they have a right to a continuing supply for whatever they wat to do in furtherance of their tribal vision. And, in a zero-sum game, recognizing that there are new sources of undiscovered or untapped water, they rule and the white man be damned. N’est pas! That settles all of the pontificating to untie the Gordian Knot.

  2. I agree with Bill, and the First Nations. They did not overdevelop a desert. There is a principal in the environmental world called “degrowth.” A livable future depends on it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *