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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, was in Phoenix this week to meet with tribal leaders for a big water settlement announcement.

On Tuesday, at the Arizona Department of Water Resources building, she announced the Interior’s plan for tribes to receive $1.7 billion in Indian water rights claims.

“I am grateful that tribes, some of whom have been waiting for this funding for decades, are finally getting the resources they are owed,” she said. “With this crucial funding Interior will uphold our trust responsibilities and ensure that tribal communities receive the water resources they have long been promised.”

The money is for “outstanding federal payments necessary to complete their terms,” according to an Interior press release, and comes from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law that invests more than $13 billion directly in tribal communities.

Roughly $2.5 billion will be used to implement the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund. Along with the available funds from the existing Reclamation Water Settlement Fund — which is expected to receive $120 million in mandatory funding annually from 2020 to 2029 — numerous tribes and settlements will be receiving money this year.

Watch: Deb Haaland talks water settlement

Those include: Aamodt Litigation Settlement (Pueblos of San Ildefonso, Nambe, Pojoaque, and Tesuque), Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, Crow Nation, Gila River Indian Community, Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement and Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, San Carlos Apache Nation, Tohono O’odham Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

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The fund also has an executive committee made up of Bureau of Reclamation, Working Group on Indian Water Settlements, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Water and Science and Indian Affairs representatives and the solicitor. Additionally, the committee will recommend the remainder of the fund in the future to Haaland based on its current project needs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes have rights to as much water as they need to establish a permanent homeland, and those rights stretch back at least as long as any given reservation has existed. As a result, tribal water rights often are more senior to others in the West, where competition over the scarce resource is fierce.

Litigation can be expensive and drawn-out, which is why many tribes have turned to settlements. The negotiations generally involve tribes, states, cities, private water users, local water districts and others and can take years if not decades to hash out.

Currently there were 34 Indian Water Rights settlements enacted by Congress.

Haaland, since Monday, has visited Salt River to highlight the Urban Waters Federal Partnership and the work of the Rio Salado Project, “that is helping protect, restore and revitalize the Salt and Middle Gila River Watershed.” She also visited the Arizona Department of Water Resources and met with the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and the Gila River Indian Community.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis at a roundtable in Phoenix on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Kyrsten Sinema's office)
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the Arizona Department of Water Resources building in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Patty Talahongva)
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland at the Arizona Department of Water Resources building in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Patty Talahongva)

Tribal leaders’ response 

The tribes in Arizona that will receive $224 million are the Tohono O'odham Nation’s Southern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement, the Gila River Indian Community’s Water Rights Settlement, and White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Water Rights Settlement.

Gila River Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis praised U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, both Democrats, for including water infrastructure funding in the bill. Haaland met with both senators during her visit.

“The water rights funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Funding is historic and will have an immediate impact in the community by accelerating irrigation projects that will create approximately 200 jobs,” Lewis said. “(The Community) looks forward to continuing to work together to address the water and drought conditions in Arizona and along the Colorado River.” 

White Mountain Apache Tribe Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood was one of the tribal leaders to meet with Haaland at the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

"On behalf of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, we are ecstatic and grateful for the funding our tribe will receive from the bipartisan infrastructure law,” she said. “This funding is crucial to effectuate the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act. For a tribe like ours, where clean, reliable drinking water is not always available, this funding means that we are closer to completing our Rural Water System Project that will provide safe drinking water for generations to come.”

San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler posted on Facebook that the meeting with Haaland went well.

“I requested Secretary Haaland to help provide funding from the infrastructure bill to start and finish our CAP water delivery project so that we can start replenishing our water aquifers and expand our farming and cattle businesses,” Rambler said. “We need to know the true impact to the environment and local water resources not just for today but also forty years from now in light of the severe drought we are in.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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