Much of this was actually cut from Arizona Water Grab, Part 2 (due to be posted soon) as a stand-alone piece, so please check that out as well.

Updates: July 27, 2017: Gila River Indian Community Leaves Water in Lake Mead | KNAU Arizona Public Radio

July 13, 2017: PRESS RELEASE: Historic water-conservation pact a “down payment” on Arizona’s effort to protect water levels at Lake Mead – Arizona Water News

“As part of the $6 million partnership agreement with the Bureau of Reclamation, the State of Arizona, the City of Phoenix and the Walton Family Foundation, Inc., The Gila River Indian Community will forego delivery of 40,000 acre-feet of its 2017 Colorado River allocation.

The tribe will leave that water in Lake Mead. It will be saved in the Colorado River system rather than be tied to any defined use.”

Gila River Indian Community Water Agreements

As you may already be aware, settlers diverted the Gila River and Salt River, which had lasting economic, nutritional, and cultural impacts on the Akimel O’odham or River People, many of whom live in the Gila River Indian Community. A water settlement was made in 2004 giving the community less water than they had demanded, but includes the largest portion of Central Arizona Project (CAP) water in Arizona. They were given entitlements to CAP water so that the City of Phoenix did not have to cut its use of the local rivers.

GRIC is entitled to different categories of water rights, much of it maintaining Indian Priority. GRIC also holds rights to more than half (over 100,000 acre feet) of the category called “non-Indian agricultural” (NIA) water. Arizona’s NIA water would be cut before any of the Indian and Municipal and Industrial (M&I) priority water would be up for reductions. Only 15% of GRIC’s NIA water must be “firmed” to M&I priority for 100 years by the Arizona Water Banking Authority. Sources of firming water could include effluent, or water leased from other tribes, which bring up their own issues. GRIC therefore, also has an interest in deterring the federal shortage reductions.

GRIC leases some of its water, and is working on infrastructure to distribute some of their water. There are major concerns with agreements that could facilitate the development of a water market, especially where the Walton Family Foundation is concerned.

There are limited details on the water agreements recently made with GRIC. There seem to be three. One, signed in January, is the “DCP+ Principles Agreement and Bridge System Conservation Implementation Agreement.” This is in preparation for DCP+ which has not yet been officially implemented. The second is an agreement between the City of Phoenix (see the City of Phoenix’s Arizona Water Exchange Platform which proposed market solutions to AZ water problems) and GRIC for underground storage signed in March. The third, also signed in March, is a non-binding, not very specific agreement between GRIC, the City of Phoenix, ADWR, and the Walton Family Foundation (WFF). This agreement seems to be an extension of the first.

GRIC, along with the Tohono O’odham Nation (TON), have been participating in the Lower Basin Pilot System Conservation Program which is intended to leave more water in Lake Mead. GRIC’s participation in phase 2 of the Pilot program in 2016 involved a project to conserve “10,000 AF of Community CAP water in Lake Mead in 2016 in lieu of storing the water underground in AZ” compensated with $1,757,500. TON’s participation that year was very similar. This program has roots in an explicitly market-based mechanism developed by Walton-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for Lower Basin water policy.

GRIC News explained more about the January 18 agreement as it relates to the Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) and the plan specifically for Arizona, DCP+:

This agreement, called the “DCP+ Principles Agreement and Bridge System Conservation Implementation Agreement” has three major components. One, it sets forth the major principles on which the United States and the Community agree for purposes of a subsequent “DCP+ Agreement”, which is a necessary condition for Arizona participation in the Drought Contingency Plan…

Two, it sets forth an agreement for the Community and the United States to commit 40,000 AF of the Community’s CAP water entitlement to remain in Lake Mead in 2017. This commitment… makes it possible for the overall water conservation efforts contemplated in the proposed DCP+ Agreement to succeed in 2017…

Three, today’s agreement sets forth a commitment by the Community and the United States to work together to find ways to conserve additional water on Reservation and provide a mechanism for CAP reliability and flexibility features in the Community water delivery system.

A CAP Action Brief from February, which includes a draft of a forbearance agreement which does not seem to have been finalized yet, states that,

As an outgrowth of the discussions to implement [DCP+], the United States Department of the Interior through the Bureau of Reclamation (“Reclamation”) and the Gila River Indian Community (GRIC) have entered into a System Conservation Implementation Agreement (SCIA) to compensate the GRIC for conservation of CAP water in 2017.

Reclamation agrees to pay GRIC $6 million for conserving 40,000 acre feet (at a rate of $150 per acre foot) conserved in 2017. According to this same document, the “SCIA agreement includes an option for an additional 40,000 af of conservation to create additional water in Lake Mead… contingent upon execution of a ‘DCP +’ agreement by March 31, 2017,” which doesn’t seem to have happened.

Arizona Department of Water Resources (ADWR) director Tom Buschatzke stated that one difference between the previous Pilot System Conservation Program and the newer program, SCIA, is that the program would expand to include new funders (presumably including WFF).

Before some the details were worked out, a January 5, 2016 CAP meeting described the two mechanisms by which DCP+ will be implemented:

“Compensated System Conservation” – this is system conservation that would be voluntarily contributed by certain CAP Tribes, including GRIC, CAP Non-Indian Ag and possibly other CAP subcontractors. The exact quantities and details are yet to be worked out, but the totals being contemplated are 410,000 acre-feet over three years 2017-2019… While the bulk of this funding is expected to come from the federal government, no specific authorization for DCP Plus has been made… Other sources of funding could include… NGOs, etc. ADWR is actively seeking funding sponsors.

“Intentionally Created Surplus” – Arizona tribes, including GRIC and potentially other tribes, anticipate creating a total of 455,000 acre-feet of ICS over the three years (2017-2019), through a verified reduction in existing beneficial use of a tribal CAP entitlement or an On-River tribal entitlement. No compensation is received, but the creators of ICS will receive a credit for each acre-foot conserved that can be recovered later under certain conditions… The City of Phoenix, and potentially other parties, are negotiating with GRIC to acquire some of the CAP tribal ICS that GRIC plans to create.

It seems here that WFF may be one of the NGOs ADWR sought funding from for system conservation. WFF has already been involved in funding a System Conservation program for the Upper Basin. Water storage trading could potentially also apply to this program, or WFF may be planning to fund ICS, or both. There seems to be more of an interest in ICS, which requires more policy reform but provides more opportunity for reallocation.

As for the second agreement, between GRIC and the City of Phoenix, Arizona Republic reports,

The deal allows Phoenix to set aside water in case of a future shortage, and will fill a section of the long-dry river at the center of the tribe’s agriculture and traditions. The city will also pay a storage fee to the community.

AZCentral’s headline, “Gila River Indian Community agrees to water-storage deal with Phoenix that will restore flow to Gila River” seems like spin, because that’s not exactly what is happening. The article concedes, “The arrangement may not provide enough water to permanently refill the Gila River, but the soil below it will be rich with groundwater, restoring the tribe’s agricultural opportunities.” (If you’re interested to see where this is happening, you can view it on google earth. Search for Sacaton and then follow the Gila River east to Olberg Road).

The Phoenix Mayor’s website specifies,

Phoenix will store up to 3,800 acre-feet of Colorado River water – around 1.238 billion gallons or enough for 16,000 Phoenix residents annually — in the Gila River Community’s Olberg Dam Underground Storage Facility near Sacaton. The Olberg facility restores flows to the Gila River while also recharging the Community’s aquifer.

It is possible that the water could support the flow of the Gila River by helping to raise the water table, and the funds from Phoenix’s storage fees can also support further infrastructure for moving water through the river. However, it would be inaccurate for them to claim that this deal is intended to make the river flow again.

To be clear, even though this seems like a win for GRIC, whose water was stolen from them so long ago as the Gila River was diverted by settlers, the water is meant to be stored underground, not in the river. The City of Phoenix can only earn credit for the water (which they can recover from somewhere in the same Active Management Area later on) if the water is recharged underground. Then at some point, Phoenix will take their water back when they need it.

One question that arises is considering that GRIC intended to store their own water underground (and a lot more of it) to earn long term storage credits, why is Phoenix storing their CAP water in the GRIC storage facility while GRIC is leaving water in Lake Mead?