Water leases at heart of recall vote within Arizona tribe

PARKER, Ariz. (AP) — The Colorado River Indian Tribes has one of the largest allocations of Colorado River water anywhere, and it’s among the most secure, dating back to the 1860s when the reservation based in Parker was formed.

What to do with that water has lately been a major source of debate.

Members of the tribe are voting Saturday on whether to recall tribal Chairman Dennis Patch and the other eight council members over talks about leasing the water to non-Indian users across the state, the Arizona Daily Star reported .

The newspaper reported in September that tribal officials secretly have discussed water leases with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, state officials and water utilities since 2014. They talked about delivering up to 150,000 acre-feet of water as far north as Tusayan outside the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and south through Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson, public records showed.

The tribe has legal rights to 662,000 acre-feet in Arizona and 56,000 acre-feet in California annually. An acre-foot is enough to supply a typical family for a year.

A lot of that water goes unused by the tribe, ending up back in the river and into a canal system that serves Phoenix and Tucson.

Tribal Chairman Dennis Patch said leasing would bring added revenue to bolster the tribe’s economy. But recall organizers want the water kept on the reservation that sits along the river along the Arizona-California border.

Recall organizers Amber Van Fleet and Timothy Stevens-Welsh said tribal members have cultural and spiritual attachments to the river. They say tribal members largely were left out of the water-leasing discussions that are on hold now because of a separate dispute over who should control Arizona’s share of river water.

“The water has always been one of those things that you just don’t mess with,” Van Fleet said. “Many leaders and warriors have fought the good fight for what we do have. We as Mohave people have been entrusted to protect what we were given to sustain our ways.”

Patch agreed that water has always been a part of the tribe’s cultures. But he said there’s a bigger picture in terms of sustainable economic benefits for the tribe and growth for off-reservation communities.

“There is no water for them other than if they can strike a deal with us for what we’re able to supply them,” Patch said. “In the preamble of the (tribal) constitution, it says we need to develop all the resources on the reservation for the betterment of our people.”

The tribe brings in more than $100 million annually by leasing its land to farmers. Patch said the tribe could make “hundreds of millions” from water leases that could be used to fix irrigation systems and expand farming on the reservation.

He’s ruled out 100-year leases. But the recall organizers fear that once the water is gone, it won’t come back.

“Once those cities have already had growth, what are they going to do” once a lease expires, said Stevens-Welsh


Information from: Arizona Daily Star, http://www.tucson.com