Tribes may shift delicate water balance in West

Interior Department enters dispute to make sure Indians get a share and to push for a speedy settlement

Since the earliest settling of the West, the tug-of-war over the frontier's most precious resource - water - has primarily been between three key players: farmers, environmental-ists, and cities.

Now, after decades of litigation, a fourth main player could dramatically alter the existing balance, and - amid the tilt of American population to the Southwest - affect development from Las Vegas to San Diego. The group: native Americans.

In an effort to settle a contentious water-rights debate before the next presidential election, the Clinton administration has now gotten involved in a decades-old lawsuit brought by 10 Arizona tribes, who say they should have access to vast amounts of Colorado River water. A settlement, which could come before the end of the year, will not only determine the direction of a dispute over who gets how much water, but also affect the region's farming and urban development well into the next century.

"The decision affects how cities and suburbs will grow or not, what kind of farming we will have and where, and how fast this will take place for the next 100 years," says Dave Iwanski, executive vice president of the Agri-Business Council of Arizona, Inc., a trade association that includes most of the state's irrigation and electrical districts.

Tribes make their claim

Empowered by the US Supreme Court in 1908 to claim enough water for the needs of their reservations, dozens of tribes have been in court for most of this century to force state and federal governments to give them what they see as their share. Now, the federal government wants to make sure they aren't ignored.

"At this critical juncture of population growth,... when cities, environmentalists, and farmers are competing for shrinking water supplies, the emergence of tribal water rights is reaching a turning point as well," says Richard Golb, former executive director of the Northern California Water Association, now a Western natural resources consultant.

"All the states in the West which rely on the Colorado River ... are tied together," he adds. "A political shootout in one state, unless it is resolved, can spill over into another."

As currently envisioned, the plan would give the 10 tribes - roughly 100,000 people - rights to enough water to serve an urban population of 3 million. That's twice the amount of water currently sent from the Colorado River to Las Vegas, America's fastest growing city for the past 60 years.

The main player, the 20,000-member Gila River Indian tribe, says it wants to create farmland to preserve open space on its 373,000-acre reservation south of Phoenix. Their claim has taken added urgency for three reasons:

*Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, wants to leave a legacy of completion on this key Western water issue.

*The 20-year construction of the $3.6 billion Central Arizona Project is complete. The 336-mile canal carries 1.5 million acre feet of water from the Colorado River to three Arizona counties each year. (One acre foot is considered enough to sustain a family of four for a year.) The US government is eager to get all these issues settled to find out who will pay how much for the cost of construction.

*All sides are growing increasingly weary of the uncertainty that has surrounded the lawsuit.

"We have been in court since 1935, and we are now looking down the line realizing how expensive the litigation is and not knowing what will come out at the end," says Rod Lewis, Gila Tribe negotiator. "We have devoted a lot of our resources solely toward this solution."

But other users worry that the Indians, who currently have no infrastructure to bring water from the Central Arizona Project to their land, will become lucrative power brokers in doling out their unused water to cities, farmers, and industrial users.

"If this plan goes through, the native Americans will be sitting on a cash cow with a potential for income such as they have never dreamed of," says Jay Malinowski, former chief of operations for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, now director of Navigant Consulting Inc., a consulting firm. "The amount of water they are talking about would go a long way toward relieving the potential of drought in the urban West."

Selling water

An example of what might occur frequently, some say, is a recent deal in which the Ak-Chin tribe sold 10,000 acre feet of water to Del Webb Corp. builders for $10 million to $12 million. There are also concerns that Indians will sell water rights to neighboring states - even though Arizona law currently prohibits it.

But some observers note that other tribes have not sold their water. For instance, the Colorado River Indian Tribes in Arizona have only about 3,000 members, yet they are allotted 717,148 acre feet a year, and they have not tried to make water sales at the expense of others.

"The Indians have not gotten rich off water and it's an open question whether they ever will," says David Hayes, chief deputy for Mr. Babbitt and lead negotiator for the Department of Interior.

Toward a settlement

He laments an atmosphere of distrust that surrounds the talks and reminds concerned water users in other sectors that the Indians have a legal right to quantities of water they have been denied in the past.

"All the parties to this discussion need to be reminded that everyone's water future is tied together, and it's better to try to do a package settlement which recognizes that fact," adds Mr. Hayes. "I hope we can settle this amicably because the alternative of court action could leave everyone unhappy."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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