Tribal water rights are at the center of an effort by two members of the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) to recall the entire CRIT Tribal Council.
Tim Stevens-Welsh and Amber Van Fleet took out recall petitions and gathered enough signatures to trigger the special election, which will be held in April. They say the Tribal Council should not be talking with other entities around the state of Arizona about the possibility of leasing surplus water from CRIT’s allocation of the Colorado River.
CRIT has senior and extensive rights to river water, according to the Tribes’ special attorney for water resources, Margaret Vick. “They have 719,000 acre-feet of water. […] It’s almost two and a half times what the state of Nevada receives,” she said in 2016 in a documentary on CRIT’s water and land. The CRIT allocation is also the most shortage-proof category.
Currently, CRIT uses only a fraction of its rightful water allocation, while other jurisdictions in the southwest are using their maximum allocations. It is this imbalance, coupled with the idea of generating economic opportunity for CRIT at home, that has had the tribal government looking for potential ways to create a ‘win-win’ situation by exploring its options with regard to how to use all that extra water.
With continuing drought conditions and millions more water users in the southwestern region, CRIT’s water could be a valuable commodity to lease to those who need it. So, the Tribal Council has been engaged in private talks with other state entities to explore the idea of such possibilities, according to Arizona Daily Star reporter Tony Davis. The article, published in September, begins:
“Think of it as a water bailout, easing Arizona’s Colorado River woes and the legal-environmental water conflicts plaguing many rural communities. Think of it as a boon for Indian tribes looking to make better and more lucrative use of their river water. Or, think of it as an enabler of growth and sprawl from Sierra Vista to Prescott and points beyond. All these descriptions could apply to a complex plan to send tribal water from the Colorado River into Arizona’s heartland to support existing residents and future development.”
The talks were conducted, as is typical of preliminary business discussions, under a nondisclosure agreement which was signed by CRIT, the Arizona state water agency, the Central Arizona Project and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, according to the article.
Vick told the Star that there currently is no deal, or even any negotiations, just meetings to discuss potential solutions.
“What the tribes have discussed are options to illustrate to the water users in the state of Arizona the many possibilities from a possible new supply,” she said.
But Stevens-Welsh and Van Fleet don’t see these possibilities the same way, let alone as a boon for the Tribes. In their filing as grounds for the recall, they wrote:
“The Colorado River is the heartbeat of our community and our identity as a people both culturally and in modern times. To negotiate or benefit from forbearing, leasing or selling water, is to remove the center and heart of the Colorado River Indian Tribes Community. Tribal Council has not taken steps to explore alternative uses for water, and instead is attempting to market our only viable natural resource without the full support from the membership. Tribal Council has put our community at the wrong table and is now gambling with our livelihoods. All generations have been taught that CRIT water is invaluable.”
The filing goes on to say that “water is not defined in the [CRIT] Constitution as an Economic Affair or Enterprise, and therefore negotiations of our water should not be entertained or pursued.”
The statement does not explain how the current major use of CRIT’s water – to irrigate lands for agriculture, providing a direct economic benefit to the Tribes – is exempt from this claim, or why unutilized water is regarded by the petitioners to be ‘invaluable’ if it is never to be utilized.
The statement finished by calling the Tribal Council’s talks with water entities “ruthless” and “negligent” and said the Council members should be “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of exploring the options they are.
CRIT has held several community meetings to talk about their water rights, according to a community memo from Council Chairman Dennis Patch published in September:
“These were educational sessions to help everyone understand the value of our water rights and what might be possible for us. On June 27th, 2015, we discussed our water rights. On June 18th, 2016, we learned about the drought conditions on the Colorado River. And, on November 3rd, 2016, we learned about the ways other tribes that have water settlements can use their water resources including transfers off reservation in return for millions of dollars. In the past, we have been denied these rights until recently, but because of the severity of the drought and population growth we now have an opportunity to help all of Arizona.”
Patch said the idea of leasing some of CRIT’s unused, surplus water could have an enormous impact upon the Tribes locally.
“The economic benefits of these rights could be the most substantial in CRIT’s history by providing our people with a new level of financial resources, far beyond anything in our tribal history by simply being allowed to lease some of our water,” he wrote. “This is why we are at the table. This is why others must have us at the table. The self-determination for our future, and theirs, cannot be realized without direct negotiations.”
Patch also mentioned the fact that the inefficiencies of the current BIA irrigation project, headquartered at Headgate Dam, mean that a lot of CRIT’s water is spilling back into the river where other river users are taking it for free, without any benefit to the Tribes.
“This is not right, not fair and something we are aiming to fix to the benefit of all tribal members,” he wrote.
Council Vice-Chairman Keith Moses issued a statement on the subject too, along with every other member of the Council. His reads, in part:
“When I was elected 3 years ago I knew there would a lot of grave issues I would need to make decisions on, none more important than water. Since Day One my education regarding water issues and our role has been ongoing. The Council as a whole has been proactive in educating all our members along the way. […] The political climate today forces us to be at the seat of all water discussions. History has shown us that everything can be taken from us instantly, as we’ve seen from the taking of the La Paz lands. One day a national emergency could be declared because of the drought and our water rights taken. This is why we need to be at the table. I can say that I have approached this issue with reverence for our responsibility of taking care of all our resources we were given. Each step we take is mindful of this responsibility.”
Council member T.J. Laffoon responded saying (in part):
“The Council has NEVER considered the selling of our water. It is important that the Council uphold the Constitution in all matters. We realize our members cannot be fully aware of all our actions, however, the negative, incorrect and misinformation contained in the recall could crucially affect years of progress and actions of Councils since 1937 and our preceding Chiefs. Climate change and drought necessitates the need to aggressively protect our water rights.
There has been NO forbearance, leasing or selling of our water. It is our lifeblood, and our actions have been to hire professionals, attorneys, consultants and experts to guide this effort. We have studied and reviewed many alternatives. None of the alternatives can be addressed until we secure the legislation we are pursuing. We are at all tables when it is necessary, how can we fight if we don’t know the enemy!”
Council member Robert “Bobby” Page responded saying (in part):
“To not negotiate or understand the benefits from using our most valuable resources would be failing the people that I swore to serve. […] I make decisions based on facts and proven results that will add value to our people and allow our futures to be prosperous. Any table we are sitting at is under our terms not the people were are negotiating with. […] Water is not defined in our constitution because it is a valuable resource that comes with our land. 300,000 acre feet flows down our river and is used by others for free. It’s an overwhelming loss to our tribe which is why I am committed to protect the rights for our people. We must remain vigilant, strong and united in our efforts.”
Council member Johnny Hill Jr. responded saying (in part):
“I have read the complaint that has been thrown upon us and I do understand the concerns that our membership has. I have and always will be against leasing of our water. You can lease a vehicle and get it back, but water you can’t. It’s gone never to be seen again. And why do we worry about the metro area seems like they’re gonna be getting fed water no matter what happens. This is where this is all coming from. […] As far as exploring alternative uses of water, back in 2012 or so prior council was working on developing new farm lands on the western boundaries. We had proposals and could have been in production this day but proposers later gave up.”
Council Secretary Amelia Flores responded saying (in part):
“I am not a gambler. I swore an oath to support, defend and protect the best interests of our Tribes. I stand vigilant to safeguard our priceless resources. The bases of the recall are that the Tribal Council sold the water to outside entities. I do not have the authority to sell CRIT’s water which is a part of our land. It takes Congressional approval to move any tribal water rights off reservation lands.
Current drought conditions allow CRIT a unique opportunity to protect our senior water rights. Council has diligently been studying alternative uses of our water, present by hired consultants and attorneys. Without legislative approval, none of the options can move forward. Council needs to be at the table as a responsible steward of the land and water, and as an accountable party has to follow mandates, disclosure and confidentiality rules.”
Council member Granthum Stevens responded, saying (in part):
“I believe that the past, present and future leaders of CRIT have and will continue to have a progressive mindset to help ensure the rights of the Tribes in every facet. The Constitution has allowed for the leaders to proactively protect the rights of the members, as well as make decisions to help in “conserve(ing) and develop(ing) our lands and resources” [Emphasis Added]. It is within this clause that the CRIT Tribal Council has been able to proactively negotiate conservative measures and to enforce the quantification of consumption to protect the Tribes adjudicated water right.
The Constitution allows for CRIT to venture into economic development. Farming, Fuel, Riverfront Resorts and Gaming are just examples of enterprises the Tribes currently oversee. The Constitution does not define what is considered an economic development but encourages alternative ideas for economic development. Tribal Council has always been instrumental in preserving and allocating funding to history, culture, arts and crafts through different departments, organizations and events throughout the years. I will always strive to remain proactive and progressive in moving the Tribes into a new era with the evolution and updating of laws, accountability and transparency. A positive future will benefit all CRIT members.”
Parker Live contacted Stevens-Welsh directly to offer him space in this article to talk about why he thinks the recall is necessary, but he declined to send a statement, saying he did not want to “be associated with” this publication. Stevens-Welsh ran for Tribal Council himself in the last election, but was not elected.
The referendum will be held on April 28th, by which the CRIT community will decide which (if any) members of the Council will need to stand for re-election again if they want to keep their seat. CRIT members will vote for or against the recall of each Council member individually.
Polls include CRIT headquarters at Four Corners and CRIT Head Start.