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Tribe becomes key water player with drought aid to Arizona

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For thousands of years, an Arizona tribe relied on the Colorado River’s natural flooding patterns to farm. Later, it hand-dug ditches and canals to route water to fields.

Now, gravity sends the river water from the north end of the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation through 19th-century canals to sustain alfalfa, cotton, wheat, onions, and potatoes, mainly by flooding the fields.

Some of those fields haven’t been producing lately as the tribe contributes water to prop up Lake Mead to help weather a historic drought in the American West. The reservoir serves as a barometer for how much water Arizona and other states will get under plans to protect the river serving 40 million people.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes and another tribe in Arizona played an outsized role in the drought contingency plans that had the state voluntarily give up water. As Arizona faces mandatory cuts next year in its Colorado River supply, the tribes see themselves as significant players in the future of water.

“We were always told more or less what to do, and so now it’s taking shape where tribes have been involved and invited to the table to do negotiations, to have input into the issues about the river,” first-term Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores said.

Lake Mead on the Nevada-Arizona border has fallen to its lowest point since it was filled in the 1930s. Water experts say the situation would be worse had the tribe not agreed to store 150,000 acre-feet in the lake over three years. A single acre-foot is enough to serve one to two households per year. The Gila River Indian Community also contributed water.

The Colorado River Indian Tribes received $38 million in return, including $30 million from the state. Environmentalists, foundations, and corporations fulfilled a pledge last month to chip in the rest.

Kevin Moran of the Environmental Defense Fund said the agreement signaled a new approach to combating drought, climate change, and the river’s demand.

“The way we look at it, the Colorado River basin is ground zero for water-related impacts of climate change,” he said. “And we have to plan for the river and the watersheds that climate scientists tell us we’re probably going to have, not the one we might wish for. Tribal officials say the $38 million is more than what they would have made leasing the land. The Colorado River Indian Tribes stopped farming more than 15 square miles (39 square kilometers) to make water available, tribal attorney Margaret Vick said.

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