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Major Water Rights Settlement for Arizona Tribe Goes to Congress

With all parties on board, the Hualapai Water Rights Settlement should be a slam dunk. The plan would provide water for the Arizona tribe to grow its business operations in the Grand Canyon.

Written by Debra Utacia Krol Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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The Colorado River runs through the Grand Canyon, on the Hualapai Reservation in Arizona.Photo by Ann Johansson/Corbis via Getty Images

In what one economic development expert calls a “unique case” of a tribe’s water rights claims being backed by all players, Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake on September 7 filed a new bill to ratify the Hualapai Tribe’s water settlement, an agreement negotiated between the tribe, Arizona, the federal government and others.

The bill, S. 1770, would provide the Northern Arizona tribe of 2,300 members, whose lands encompass parts of the Grand Canyon, with sufficient water to not only meet the tribe’s residential needs but to bolster northwestern Arizona’s economy. More water would help grow the tribe’s largest business, Grand Canyon West, which is home to the world-famous Grand Canyon Skywalk – a glass bridge 4,000 ft above the Grand Canyon floor.

The bill, if enacted, will provide the tribe with 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water. And the bill appropriates $173 million to construct a 70-mile-long pipeline from the Colorado River up to Peach Springs, Arizona in Mohave County, the Hualapai tribal capital, and the Canyon West resort area.

“This is a unique case. The tribe’s drive to claim its long-denied rights is supported by all of the major players in the region, as they have come to realize that the Hualapai Tribe is the economic engine everyone depends on,” says Joseph P. Kalt, codirector of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at Harvard University, who directed a study to determine the economic impact of the settlement.

Grand Canyon West, which currently hosts more than 1 million visitors annually, needs the additional water to grow its operation. “An assured water supply represents the most important issue impacting the growth and the vitality of Grand Canyon West and the businesses of the Hualapai Tribe,” says Candida Hunter, board chair of Grand Canyon West Resort Corporation and a Hualapai tribal member. “The Hualapai water settlement legislation recently introduced in Congress will help make sure that these businesses and our people have sufficient water to continue to help drive the economy of Mohave County and northwestern Arizona.”

Visitors take in the view from the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West following the opening ceremony on the Hualapai Indian Reservation in Arizona March 20, 2007. A bill introduced in Congress will ratify a water settlement for the tribe, which would help them expand their business at the Grand Canyon. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Tribal officials declined to specify expansion plans. Representatives of the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation and environmental advocacy organization, also declined to comment on the legislation, saying that they had not completed analyzing the possible effects of the settlement on canyon lands, people and ecologies.

Arizona’s Office of Economic Opportunity found that Mohave County’s unemployment rate jumped to 5.8 percent in August, more than 0.7 percent higher than Arizona overall and nearly 1.5 percent higher than the national average of 4.4 percent. “We’re in favor of the [water] pipeline,” says Gary Watson, chairman of the Mohave County board of supervisors. “It’s a positive for our economy.”

In fact, all the players in the settlement, which also includes the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the Arizona State Land Department and the U.S. government, are in agreement.

Kalt’s economic study, released July 2017, found that the assured water supply for Grand Canyon West would “support an average of more than 10,100 jobs per year, nearly $1.5 billion in federal tax revenues in present value, over $6.2 billion in income for U.S. workers in present value and more than $9.3 billion in gross domestic product for the United States (in present value).” Hunter adds, “This type of impact is transformative to a regional economy like northwest Arizona.”

“Without the settlement, Hualapai‘s remarkable resurgence will stall,” as well as halt the return of Hualapai tribal members to the community, Kalt says. Currently, the tribe says that about 1,000 of its 2,300 tribal members live away from the reservation. The Hualapai Tribe has little else in the way of economic development opportunities; gaming is not viable in this remote community, and Interstate 40 long ago bypassed Peach Springs. Tourism along the tribe’s 108 miles of Colorado River waterfront is the best option for a long-term economic strategy.

“This landmark settlement protects Arizonans from a shortage in Lake Mead through proactive water management and ensures continued, reliable access to water throughout the state,” said Flake in a press release announcing the bill. “I am especially pleased that in settling this claim, the Hualapai Tribe will finally gain the ability to put its water right to use and grow its economy.”

Jeremy A. Lite, an environmental attorney with Tucson, Arizona, law firm Quarles & Brady says that the fact that all parties agree to the settlement is a testimony to the importance quantified water rights hold for everybody. “It’s important to the tribe because it formalizes and quantifies its water rights,” says Lite. “That means they can enforce their rights and use the water for economic development.”

However, the benefits the ratified agreement would hold for Arizona depend on one thing: “Congress needs to pass the bill,” says David Johnson, senior attorney for the Central Arizona Project. A similar bill (S. 3300) filed in 2016 by Flake and McCain stalled.

Although nobody will speculate on the chances for passage this time around, one indicator was noted during the hearings for the 2016 bill, where the Department of the Interior representatives expressed concern over the pipeline price tag. In a prepared statement, then Acting Assistant Secretary Lawrence Roberts stated: “The Department is concerned by the disparity between the level of funding called for in S. 3300 and the relatively small amount of water to be delivered to the Tribe.” DOI also felt that the project could run over budget because of the complexity of delivering water up the 4,000ft canyon wall.

However, Watson avers that the $173 million would be paid back many times over, saying, “It’s an investment in infrastructure.”

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