Gila River Indian Community receives $233M in water conservation, infrastructure funding

The Gila River Indian Community will receive up to $233 million in funding for conservation agreements that will help the tribe and other water users along the Colorado River Basin protect the stability and sustainability of the Colorado River system. 

“We’re facing serious challenges right now in the Colorado River Basin as a result of persistent and pervasive drought, which has been exacerbated by climate change,” Deputy Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner David Palumbo said on April 6 at a press briefing announcing the funding.

Palumbo said that the Bureau of Reclamation has incredible resources through the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. It has helped the department work closely with the 30 Colorado River basin tribes in seven U.S. basin states to respond to the urgent conditions to shape a more resilient future and adapt to a changing climate. 

“Our shared priority is to build sustainable and strong communities and protect our water supplies for people and natural environments, farm tribes, cities, and ecosystems,” he said.

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Palumbo announced two major funding agreements with the Gila River Indian Community demonstrating the administration’s investments in managing the drought crisis. 

The Gila River Indian Community will receive up to $50 million for water system conservation initiatives, resulting in nearly two feet of elevation savings in Lake Mead that will benefit the Colorado River system.

“That’s up to 125,000-acre feet in 2023 alone,” Palumbo said, noting that that’s enough water for at least half a million people.

The Gila River Indian Community has committed to similar water savings in 2024 and 2025 for up to an additional $100 million in funding, Palumbo added. That is $150 million in funding for the Gila River Indian Community’s water system conservation initiatives. 

The project’s funding comes from the Inflation Reduction Act and is part of the Lower Colorado River System Conservation and Efficiency program. The program, announced in 2022, was established to help increase water conservation, improve water efficiency, and prevent the System’s reservoirs from falling to critically low elevations that would threaten water deliveries and power production. 

The projects by the Gila River Indian Community are among the first allocations for system conservation agreements from this new program, Palumbo said. 

The Gila River Indian Community will receive an additional $83 million for a second water system conservation project, their reclaim water pipeline project, which aims to expand, reuse and increase Colorado River water conservation.

The project will generate approximately 20,000 acre-feet of water per year, nearly 80,000 of which will shore up elevations at Lake Mead over a 10-year period, Palumbo said. 

The funds for the water pipeline project come from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and annual appropriations. The project is expected to start construction this summer and be completed by the end of 2024.

“These actions build upon the commitment by the Biden-Harris administration, the Department of the Interior, and Reclamation, to ensure that indigenous communities have the resources and support they need,” Palumbo said, adding that the Bureau of Reclamation is committed to ensuring these investments deliver meaningful results.

“Having resilient water supplies and modern water infrastructure is crucial to both the health of our families and the economic vitality of our communities,” he said.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said these are genuinely historic investments in directly tackling the challenge presented to the state and region by the historic drought.

“This is an Arizona-wide response to a need to reduce and conserve water in the lower basin,” Lewis said, noting the projects will benefit the entire basin itself.

Lewis said the Gila River Indian Community has a third project agreement for solar-covered canals. 

“This is truly a path to a greener future — attacking the root cause of climate change, moving us forward to a net zero ag economy for a sovereign tribal nation and doing so on an accelerated basis,” Lewis said. The funding amount for that project was not disclosed.

Lewis said bringing these projects forward is an example of what happens when tribes have a seat at the table and enter into respectful working relationships with federal, state, and local governments.

It demonstrates that tribes can provide truly innovative solutions that could move the needle in protecting our water, Lewis added. He said he hopes that this could be seen as a starting point for other Colorado Riber Basin Tribes.

“The Colorado River tribes not only have needs and rights that must be respected, but today’s announcements in our partnerships with tribes like the Gila River Indian Community prove that tribes are a key part of the solutions we have,” Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau said.

Beaudreau said the drought is one of the most significant challenges facing the U.S. today. It will take collaborative efforts from federal, state, local and tribal partners to tackle the issue.

“We know we can’t solve this crisis without the broad support of the basin states, tribes, water managers, farmers, and other stakeholders,” he said, because each of them will have a part to play in developing reliable water systems.

“We at the Interior Department are deploying resources at an unprecedented pace to protect the Colorado River system and the critical services it provides to millions of people in countless ecosystems,” he added.

The funding announcement comes as part of the Biden administration’s Investing in America tour, highlighting the opportunities that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act are creating. 

“Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act, we have historic, once-in-a-generation investments to expand access to clean drinking water for families, farmers, and Tribes,” Beaudreau said. 

“In the wake of record drought throughout the West, safeguarding tribal access to water resources could not be more critical,” he added. “These types of agreements will support tribal communities through essential water infrastructure projects and support water conservation in the Colorado River system.”

Gov. Katie Hobbs held a press conference on April 6 to announce the funding, featuring federal, state, local and tribal leaders. She applauded the commitment set in place by the Gila River Indian Community, Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior.

“It is important that we continue our work to stabilize the Colorado River system through collaboration and conservation,” Hobbs said. “Our path to success requires every water user in every sector, in every basin state to be part of the solution.”

Even though Arizona has had a wet winter, Hobbs said that is not enough to offset decades of over-allocation and the rising temperatures in Arizona watersheds. 

She said that is why conservation projects are so critical and that water infrastructure investment is vital to Arizona’s resilient water future. 

That has been exemplified by the agreements established by the Gila River Indian Community, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Interior. 

Hobbs said that these innovative arrangements allow for greater utilization of recycled water, increasing the conservation of Colorado River Water in Lake Mead.

“Water is a sacred resource and crucial to ensuring the health, safety, and empowerment of Tribal communities,” Palumbo said. “The Bureau of Reclamation is hard at work to support projects that have long awaited this kind of funding – projects that are integral to protecting the Colorado River System and the communities that rely on it. By working together, we can ensure the longevity of the basin.”

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