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Ak-Chin Indian Community Files Suit Over Water Rights

The Ak-Chin Indian Community is seeking a federal ruling to ensure that the tribe’s water rights will continue as stated by a 1984 agreement.
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The Ak-Chin Indian Community is seeking a federal ruling to ensure that water keeps flowing to its reservation 40 miles south of Phoenix.

Roughly 70 percent of the Ak-Chin community’s 23,000-acre reservation is farmland, on which the tribe produces corn, cotton, wheat, barley, pecans and potatoes, and brings in revenue to support critical programs. At about 16,000 acres, Ak-Chin Farms is one of the largest agricultural communities in the United States.

Ak-Chin Farms, a tribal enterprise and major employer, relies on water rights spelled out in a 1984 agreement that guarantees 75,000 acre-feet of water per year, plus an additional 10,000 acre-feet “in any year in which sufficient surface water is available.”


For 28 years, the tribe received that extra 10,000 acre-feet of water, Chairman Robert Miguel said. But its water supply and farming operations were threatened late last year when the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, a municipal corporation that operates a system of canals and other structures that deliver water throughout central and southern Arizona, sent a letter informing the tribe that it would no longer deliver the extra water.

“They’ve been challenging the extra 10,000 acre-feet for a number of years now,” Miguel said of the CAWCD. “They’re saying that because this agreement is not spelled out in the Arizona Water Settlements Act that they’re not required to give us the extra water. But this is a federally recognized water settlement and it has to be abided by.”

The tribe last month filed a federal lawsuit against the CAWCD, seeking injunctive relief preventing the water district from cutting the extra supply.

“Throughout its history, Ak-Chin has relied on subsistence and eventually commercial farming for sustenance,” states the lawsuit, filed March 28 in United States District Court in Arizona. “Ak-Chin’s agrarian lifestyle necessarily requires significant amounts of water.”

The Ak-Chin community has lived in the area since time immemorial, the lawsuit states. In fact, the name ‘Ak-Chin’ is an O’odham word referring to the type of farming practiced by the people.

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U.S. President William Taft signed an executive order in 1912 establishing the Ak-Chin reservation with 47,600 acres. A few months later, however, the land was reduced by more than half in response to complaints from surrounding farmers.

As the Phoenix area grew in the following decades, Ak-Chin experienced a decline in water, which threatened its agrarian lifestyle, Miguel said. In 1978, Congress approved a settlement intended to “meet the emergency needs of the Ak-Chin community” by awarding a “permanent supply of water” in the amount of 85,000 acre-feet per year—to be made available within 25 years.

Six years later, the tribe and the federal government agreed to an amendment of the original agreement, cutting the water allotment to 75,000 acre-feet—with the 10,000 additional acre-feet as available—and requiring it to be delivered by January 1, 1988.

“Farming was always part of our community, the backbone of who we are,” Miguel said. “Our water settlement is considered one of the great settlements in the country and every year until now, we’ve gotten the water we’ve needed.”

Should the tribe lose the extra water, it would mean 15-percent cuts across the board, said Steve Coester, manager of Ak-Chin Farms. The farm uses about 68,000 acre-feet of water per year for agriculture, with the rest of the allotted supply used for drinking water, other tribal enterprises and long-term leases to outside corporations.

“If the extra water goes away, that’s roughly 15 percent of the total water, so we’ll more than likely have to reduce our irrigated acres by 15 percent,” Coester said. “Our workforce will be reduced and our revenues and profits will be reduced. Everything will go down by about the same amount.”

In its lawsuit, the Ak-Chin Indian Community claims the water district’s threatened course of conduct would cause irreparable harm “by depriving the community of federally guaranteed water rights that are critical to the success of the community’s farming operations and its general economic well-being.” It is seeking a declaration of federal water rights under the 1984 act and of the water district’s obligations.

“We completely understand that there is an imminent drought in the Southwest and that the water district is trying to do what they can to get water resources to accommodate the needs out there,” Miguel said. “To us, this is just another incident of the white people taking advantage of Native Americans. When we get a letter saying they’re not going to give us our water, they better believe we’re going to fight.”

In an email to ICMN, a CAWCD spokeswoman said attorneys from the water district met with attorneys from the tribe to work out a “third-party, neutral judgment” seeking clarity about legal language in the tribe’s water rights settlement.

“This is a long-standing issue regarding differing interpretations of ambiguous language in the Ak-Chin water settlement act,” Jay Johnson, General Counsel to CAWCD, said in an emailed statement. “In an effort to finally resolve the issue, CAP suggested (the) tribe take the lead in filing for a declaratory judgment that would put the decision in the hands of a neutral party—the court. This is not about withholding water, but is about a mutual desire to seek clarity on the parties’ respective rights.”