Arizona Tribes Set to Receive Over $120 Million for Water Infrastructure Improvements

FILE - This photo shows Colorado River water running through farmland on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation, Feb. 19, 2018 in Parker, Ariz. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)

By Morgan Fischer

February 27, 2023

Funding is necessary to ensure settlements have the infrastructure needed to deliver water.

A century-old promise to provide indigenous communities access to water will soon be fulfilled, thanks in part to a renewed push to improve the nation’s infrastructure.

Nearly $580 million in federal funding will go toward fulfilling Indian Water Rights claims, the Interior Department announced Feb. 2, five of which are for Native American communities in Arizona. The funds have been made available thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Reclamation Water Fund.

Water rights settlements are agreements made between the United States and Native American communities, where the federal government agrees to aid in restoring access to water indigenous communities have a claim of ownership over. This access comes in the form of irrigation projects, reliable water delivery services, and other necessary infrastructure improvements.

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“The Interior Department will continue to uphold our trust responsibilities and ensure that Tribal communities receive the water resources they have long been promised,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “I am grateful that Tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed.”

The United States is legally obligated to fulfill these claims. 

There are 34 current congressionally-enacted Indian Water Rights settlements. 

“[Water rights settlements] are critical to being able to form a nucleus of known ability for the rest of our state to know where the water is at and who has rights to it,” former US Rep. Tom O’Halleran of Arizona told The Copper Courier. “Yet, the lack of water in Arizona plays a large part, as the amount of total ongoing water supplies is taken into consideration as well.”

Claims in Arizona

A total of nearly $129 million will be headed to Arizona to fulfill water rights claims in the state. 

“Arizona has been a big leader in Indian Water Rights Settlements historically,” the Interior Department’s Indian Water Rights Office Director Pam Williams said. “Many of the Arizona settlements were enacted decades ago and the $129 million will continue to pay off the water rights settlements across the state.”

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Here’s where the funds are headed, and what they’re being used for:

  • $78 million to the Gila River Indian Community for irrigation development and restoration
  • $22 million to the Ak-Chin Indian Community for water to farms and other operations
  • $18 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the San Carlos Irrigation project, which will serve the Gila River Indian Community and non-indigenous farmers
  • $8 million to the Tohono O’odham Nation as part of the Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement
  • $1.5 million to the San Carlos Apache Tribe for infrastructure studies

Use of Funds

These funds will likely be used toward “the planning process to implement the infrastructure needs,” O’Halleran said. “I would doubt it would go toward anything other than that.”  

Funding is necessary to ensure settlements have the infrastructure needed to deliver water. Many times, tribes have to build dams, pipelines, or other structures to deliver water, or restore existing infrastructure in need of repair.

The funds also allow the state to coordinate the use of the water for dams and agriculture, as well as the tribes’ abilities to lease water to Arizona’s major cities and towns, O’Halleran said.  

Process of Securing Water Rights

Receiving these water rights settlements is no easy feat, as it’s a court and administrative process that takes a long time, O’Halleran said. The end result is “a multi-year, sometimes multi-decade” process. 

Several federal agencies work together to negotiate with the tribes seeking water rights. The Interior Department asks that tribes looking to negotiate to write a written request, and the state or non-Indian party looking to negotiate with them do so as well.  

After the request is in, several federal agencies work together to negotiate with the tribes. Once a settlement is made, these claims “typically go to Congress for approval because they almost always require federal dollars,” Williams said.

Negotiations take historical perspective and need into account. The tribe’s use of water in the past is examined “to prove that they are entitled to that water,” O’Halleran said.

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