Tribal Leaders Discuss the Challenges of Water Supply in the Era of Drought Conditions

Christopher Lomahquahu

Gila River Indian News


Tribal leaders came together to address water supply and usage during the “Progress Toward Building Water Resilient Communities” panel discussion at the virtual University of Arizona Water Research Review conference on Aug. 31. 


“When I was asked to speak on today’s panel, I immediately thought of our community’s water planning and what our efforts have done to address the most pressing issues before us during the ongoing drought,” said Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis. 


He said the Community has developed a comprehensive water plan to address the rising costs of Central Arizona Project water, which GRIC receives in lieu of water from the Gila River. This allocation of CAP water is part of the Community’s monumental 2004 water settlement, which allows GRIC to bring water to tribal lands for a wide range of uses. 


“The Community adopted a water plan, which has never really been done before in such a comprehensive way, with two goals in mind,” said Gov. Lewis. One goal is to increase farming activity in the Community, which means supplying water to small family-run farms, said Lewis. The second goal is to reinvigorate the Gila River through the development of the Managed Aquifer Recharge Site 5, also known as MAR-5. 


Joining Gov. Lewis on the panel discussion were the Colorado River Indian Tribe Chairwoman Amelia Flores and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. Each of the presenting tribal leaders provided an overview of how they are addressing water supply demands and instilling conservation programs along with their work. 


“The cycle of drought with lack of rain and snow and higher temperatures and changes in the soil and every other change to the natural environment impacts all of us,” said Flores, who connected climate change to the recent drought conditions experienced across the Southwest. 


Flores said her tribe and many others have entered new territory – a period of uncertainty as water resources are becoming depleted while water remains in high demand. 


“Our homelands are not the same from when we lived off of the resources.” said Flores, “We are discovering that our reservations are at the end of ‘climate zones.’” 


Flores touched on how every tribal community is drastically impacted by drought, climate change and the deepening struggle to access basic natural resources, like water. 


 “We are doing what we can to save the life of the Colorado River, which is threatened by climate change and overuse,” she added. 


President Nez said that for the Navajo Nation, the top priority is gaining access to reliable sources of water. “The diverse water challenges facing the Navajo Nation are plentiful,” he said. “Water is among our most needed resources and there are multiple uses for it on the Nation.” 


Nez said what makes the challenge more of an uphill battle is the fact that much of the Navajo Nation is spread out across 27,000 square acres. He also explained that about 40 percent of homes on the reservation currently lack indoor plumbing.


“The COVID-19 pandemic has also made our citizens lives more challenging,” said President Nez, “showing a direct correlation between basic needs, the availability of water and other supplies.” 


He added: “Economic hardship has hit many members, as they often pay and haul water on their limited budgets. This includes gas, maintenance for vehicles on a regular basis.” 


Nez touched on the federal government’s trust responsibility for tribes, adding that it’s one of the reasons the Navajo Nation is seeking federal financial support. 


“The Tribal Access to Clean Water Act of 2020 is one way we are looking to get much-needed infrastructure onto the Nation,” said Nez, adding that the measure would include funding to support the tribe’s water infrastructure. The pending H.R. 3684: Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act should also help the Navajo Nation address its needs, said Nez.