PARKER — On the Arizona-California border, where the Colorado River pushes against Headgate Rock Dam, churning water pours into a wide canal and runs across the desert, flowing toward the farmlands of the Colorado River Indian Tribes.
This tribal nation is the largest single user of Colorado River water in Arizona, with rights to divert about 662,000 acre-feet per year, more than double the amount of water diverted for the state of Nevada.
But unlike other tribes elsewhere in Arizona, the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, are legally barred from leasing water to growing cities and suburbs. The reasons go back to a 1964 decree by the U.S. Supreme Court that established the tribal water rights, and to a law enacted in the 1790s that limits tribes’ authority to make such deals without congressional approval.
Now tribal leaders plan to ask Congress to pass legislation that would allow them to put some of their water on the market by leasing it out. They say their water can help Arizona endure shortages as drought and climate change reduce the river’s flow.
They’re already leaving some farmlands dry in exchange for payments, helping Arizona deal with cutbacks under an agreement aimed at boosting the water level in Lake Mead. The reservoir has declined to 39% of full capacity and is approaching the threshold of officially entering a shortage.
Chairman Dennis Patch said the tribe can do more to help as the Southwest grapples with declining water supplies, and in turn would benefit by leasing some of its water. He said it’s also time the Colorado River Indian Tribes gain the ability to use their water as they choose.
“We did this as a tribe because we wanted to claim our own destiny with our land and our water,” Patch said during a virtual meeting on the proposal earlier this month. “Our water is critical to the state’s water security as the drought continues and possibly worsens.”
And because CRIT holds the most senior first-priority rights, its water likely won’t be at risk of cuts during shortages.
“It can be used by others in Arizona to lessen the impact of shortages if Lake Mead continues to drop,” Patch said.
Leasing some water would also generate funds to repair and upgrade the aging irrigation system on the reservation, helping its farms use water more efficiently, Patch said. He called the plan “a win for Arizona water users, for the river and for our people and the reservation economy.”
CRIT has about 4,500 tribal members. In January 2019, members voted in a referendum to endorse the approach of…