The water-rich Gila River Tribe near Phoenix is ​​flexing its political muscles in a drying West

SACATON, Ariz. (AP) — Stephen Roe Lewis grew up seeing stacks of legal documents at the dinner table — often covering his tribe’s waters.

His father, the late Rodney Lewis, was general counsel for the Gila River Indian Community and fought for the tribe’s rights to water in the Southwest, ultimately securing the largest Native American water settlement in U.S. history in 2004.

Years later, Stephen would become governor of the tribe, whose reservation is about a half hour south of downtown Phoenix. During his tenure, he played a critical role in dealing with a water crisis in the seven-state Colorado River basin, caused by existential drought exacerbated by climate change and decades of Western states over-exploiting the river withdrawn.

Lewis, 56, has used the Gila River tribe’s abundance of water to help Arizona, making his tribe a power player in the parched region. His fingerprints are on many recent major decisions made in the West about the future of the river that supports 40 million people, and the tribe’s influence is only growing.

“You never choose your path,” he said, “but it was laid out for me through my parents.”

Breakthroughs at crucial moments

The tribe, with about 15,000 members living on the reservation, is one of two tribes in Arizona each entitled to more than 801 million cubic feet of water from the Colorado and other sources. (The other is the Colorado River Indian tribes.) One acre is enough water to supply about two to three American households per year. On average, tribal households use significantly less.

For years, the Gila River Tribe has made a business of storing the water it draws from the Colorado River and leasing some of it to Arizona cities in exchange for money. One such deal, struck in 2016 with the fast-growing Phoenix suburb of Chandler, netted the tribe $46 million.

In 2019, an impasse was broken when Arizona became the last western state in the seven-state basin to sign a water conservation plan. The tribe offered to sell nearly 830,000 acre-feet (1 billion) of water over 25 years to a major supplier of water for new home construction in central Arizona, after the industry opposed Arizona joining because worries it would face water shortages in one of the country’s fastest-growing real estate markets.

In 2023, the tribe reached a $150 million deal with the U.S. government to maintain water levels at Lake Mead, the reservoir behind the Hoover Dam on the Nevada-Arizona border. The dam stores water from the Colorado River for Arizona, California, Nevada and northern Mexico. Lake Mead had fallen to an all-time low, and the Gila River Tribe agreed to conserve 125,000 acre feet of water (154 million cubic meters) each year in the man-made reservoir.

“His partnership is absolutely genuine,” said Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs. “But he also sees it as a means to gain more support for his people. And so he just deals with it very strategically.”

Tribal politics and infrastructure

Lewis has been familiar with tribal politics all his life.

“While my father fought for our water rights, I now see my role as implementing the settlement,” Lewis said.

He described a childhood in Sacaton, Arizona, where he encountered the tribe’s former governors, “giants, bigger than life itself.”

When describing his work, Lewis often looks to the past. He said he wants the tribe’s younger generations to have the same respect for water and natural resources that he was taught growing up. At the same time, he has led efforts to try groundbreaking water conservation practices, such as covering canals with solar panels that would reduce water evaporation while producing renewable electricity.

With funding from the Biden administration, the Gila River Tribe is working on a pilot program to generate 1.3 megawatts of clean energy, providing 2.3 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually from canal solar panels, with the ultimate goal of reaching a distance of 30 km (30 km). 29.7 kilometers) of canals.

“We can look at ways to save water in a very modern context,” Lewis said, “but in line with our cultural traditions.”

Diverting a river

These fortunes are recent. Beginning in the 19th century, state and local governments deprived the Gila River Tribe of the water they had depended on for millennia by damming the once free-flowing Gila River. The river was placed behind concrete or earthen dams and the water was intended for non-indigenous farmers and cities.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the tribe regained its rights when the water settlement was secured by Rodney Lewis, who was also the first Native American lawyer to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“A hundred and fifty years ago, our water was stolen,” Lewis said. “So we know how devastating that can be.”

Today, the Gila River Tribe’s primary water use is agriculture, Lewis said. Farmers there grow cotton, wheat, alfalfa and vegetables, most of which is consumed locally, although some is exported to Arizona and elsewhere.

As farmers in central Arizona, whose water supplies were severely cut back in 2021, scale back their operations, Lewis is determined that the Gila River Tribe wants to continue expanding its farms — for which they are building more irrigation infrastructure to bring water to different parts of the region. Reservation of 586 square miles (1,517 square kilometers).

The tribe also operates several casinos, hotels, a theme park and several businesses on the reservation and in the Phoenix metropolitan area, which became the fifth-largest city in the U.S. in 2021.

“Before we had our casinos, our farms in the Gila River were really one of our main economic engines,” Lewis said. “So we’re looking at ways we can grow that industry.”

Future negotiations

Lewis, a towering figure in the South West, was re-elected for a fourth time last December.

“He has an extended runway, in a sense,” said Republican Sen. TJ Shope of Arizona, who represents a rural district that intersects with the Gila River reservation. “It allows him to think about ten years from now.”

As Western states and nearly 30 Native American tribes that share the Colorado River figure out how to share the river’s water after 2026, when the river’s current rules expire, Lewis has not shied away from rejecting ideas he considers unfair.

He has repeatedly said he will not accept a deal that is bad for Arizona, where lower water rights have resulted in the state losing about 20% of its share of the river in 2021. Lewis hopes his tribe can continue to help alleviate long-standing stress points in the rivers. negotiations between the seven American states, such as those between California and Arizona.

“It’s real water diplomacy on the ground,” Lewis said of his tribe’s role. “It’s complicated. This is still an unfolding story.”


Naishadham reported from Washington, DC


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