David H. DeJong, Ph.D.
David H. DeJong, Ph.D. Director, Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, Gila River Indian
The story of water in Indian Country can be unpleasant. For the Gila River Indian Community (Community), this story is tragic, but with a promising future. Since time immemorial, the people were successful agriculturalists, with the river the epicenter of their economic and spiritual well-being and supporting an economy of 15,000 acres on the eve of the Civil War, an event that unleashed a national industrial boom unparalleled in human history. While the Community was not passive in responding to these events, it was no more able to stop this juggernaut than the average American.
This national transformation initiated upstream diversions and ushered in a forty-year period of poverty and deprivation at Gila River. Upstream settlement was encouraged by federal Desert Land policies, the Reclamation Act, and the federal Indian General Allotment Act. While Congress funded a series of irrigation projects designed to protect for the Community what limited water remained in the river, an inadequate conveyance system and an over-appropriated river doomed these efforts.
When Congress approved of the San Carlos Act in 1924 and funded the construction of Coolidge Dam, it appeared that the Community might receive the water to which it had a legal and moral right. In 1925, the Justice Department filed suit on behalf of the Community against upstream users. Ten years later, the district court rendered its decision dividing the waters of the Gila River between the Community and its upstream neighbors. Insufficient water, however, precluded the Community from irrigating more than two-thirds of its decreed land.
Over the next 40 years federal attorneys litigated Community claims. After decades of lobbying by Senator Carl Hayden and others, Congress authorized the Central Arizona Project as a means of bringing Colorado River water into central Arizona, in part to address Community water claims. Tribal leaders recognized that, while they had valid claims to central Arizonas water, they would have to establish a water budget and demonstrate they could put this water to use. In 1992, the Community signed a repayment contract for the annual delivery of 173,100 acre-feet of CAP water. Twelve years later, the Community agreed to a comprehensive water settlement with Title II of the Arizona Water Settlements Act restoring an average annual water budget of 653,500 acre-feet. Today, the Community is poised to restore its agricultural economy by nearly tripling its irrigated lands.
History is filled with ironies. The Consolidated Canal and the Florence Canal were constructed more than a century ago to deprive the Community of its land and water resources. Today, both canals are conveying settlement water to the Community, enabling it to position itself as the breadbasket of Arizona, a role it has not enjoyed since the Civil War.
The Indigenous Perspectives conference enabled the Community to share this story of water deprivation and restoration. After centuries of being denied a voice at the table, the Community today is not only sharing its unique history, but it is also lending an autochthonous perspective of water management and stewardship, lending a fuller perspective of the Arizona water story.