Federal lawmakers representing Arizona have once again teamed up to save a stalled water settlement with the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran joined with Senators Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema to introduce a bill to extend the deadline to build a dam and water pipeline to supply drinking water to communities on the White Mountain Apache Reservation. The new deadline would be April of 2025.

Congress approved a water settlement with the White Mountain Apache back in 2010, which settled the tribe’s long-standing water claims in return for money to build a new water system to serve Whiteriver, Fort Apache, Canyon Day, Cedar Creek, Carrizo and Cibecue.

The project would require a dam on the North Fork of the White River, as well as miles of pipeline to bring drinking water to each of those communities. Those communities now rely on water hauling or dwindling or sometimes polluted wells. The surface water flowing across their ancestral lands mostly runs down into Roosevelt Lake to supply users in the Valley.

The water project ran into problems when unanticipated technical problems and cost overruns pushed up the cost of the design for the system.

“On behalf of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, I would like to express my appreciation to Senator Kelly, Senator Sinema, and Representative O’Halleran for championing this legislation which would provide the resources and time needed to effectuate the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act,” said Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood. “The legislation will ensure that our members have safe drinking water for generations to come and that the tribe’s water claims are finally resolved.”

Rep. O’Halleran said, “Clean, running water is something so many of us take for granted, but a vital resource that is far too often inaccessible to tribal families. Today, I’m proud to join our Senators to introduce legislation to amend the White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Water Rights Qualification Act–legislation I have championed since coming to Congress in 2017,” said O’Halleran. “Our bill will provide the tribe the necessary resources and time to build the desperately-needed water infrastructure contemplated in the underlying legislation to ensure they have access to safe, reliable water infrastructure for years to come.”

Sen. Kelly commented, “I am proud to introduce this legislation with Senator Sinema and Representative O’Halleran which will ensure that White Mountain Apache families and businesses have access to reliable, clean, safe drinking water now and for generations to come.”

Sen. Sinema said, “Strengthening White Mountain Apache Tribe’s Rural Water System Project will provide clean, dependable, and sustainable drinking water for tribal members now and in the future.”

The bill would simply extend the original deadline for completion of the project, which has been slogging through Congress for more than a decade — with repeated extensions and changes in the price tag.

The Senate also recently enacted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which included $2.5 billion to fully fund existing Indian Water Rights settlements, which includes the long-standing efforts to secure the tribe’s ancestral rights to water from White Mountains Rivers and streams — which flow through perhaps the wettest area in Arizona or New Mexico. The White Mountain Apache, the Navajo and the Hopi remain among the few tribes that managed to hang onto much of their ancestral lands. However, water developments and previous acts of Congress have largely allocated the water flowing out of the White Mountains to the Salt River Project.

The Hopi, Navajo and White Mountain Apache are all coping with severe water shortages or water supply issues, compounded by the effects of the current, 20-year drought. That drought has driven the reservoirs on the Colorado River to the lowest level ever — triggering water rationing for Arizona and Nevada.

The Senate-passed Infrastructure act would provide money to provide water promised to the tribes in previous settlements. It finally passed the House on Nov. 5.

Previous published reports said the proposed Miner Flat Dam has faced unanticipated problems with leakage and design, which stalled the project. The tribe sought millions in unreimbursed and increased design costs.

The settlement would provide the Tribe with 25,000 acre-feet of water annually, to supply reservation communities.

The US Bureau of Reclamation originally set aside $12 million to design the 160-foot-high dam and rural water system. The design problems and technical issues resulted in a doubling of the design cost, according to published reports.

In the 2010 settlement, the Tribe agreed to give up its century old claim to 175,000 acre-feet in return for rights to 52,000 acre feet – with half of the water leased to water users in the Valley and the other half delivered to communities on the reservation.

The proposed dam on the White River would create a 160-acre reservoir and store 8,600 acre-feet of water. The associated water treatment plant could process 14.6 million gallons of water a day, according to a fact sheet posted online by the US Bureau of Reclamation. The distribution system would involve 60 miles of pipeline, with storage tanks in each community served.

Congress has previously approved two amendments to cover cost overruns, including allowing the bureau to use money earmarked for construction to cover the rising design costs. The projected cost of the project has now risen to $334 million, with costs somewhere between $150 million and $250 million more than originally envisioned, according a fact sheet supplied by O’Halleran’s office.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(4) comments

trevhall93

Isn’t it funny that the natives can build dams and pipelines on “sacred lands”. Don’t be fooled, they plan to sell the water to the PHX metro area for big dollars. What a scam.

Altaha

What scam? This is our water and we can do what we want with it. This water issue has been going on long before the dam idea was ever conceived. We had to fight to build the recreation lakes that so many enjoy now. The lakes were built at night with security protecting Apaches against the outsiders trying to stop the construction of the lakes. There's a misconception of reservation life to outsiders. If we start selling water I hope you buy it because it will taste great coming straight from the source unlike other water companies out there.

Bob Smith

Trevhall get a life, and get informed. The tribe is legally entitled to the water emanating from their sovereign land and I might add they are much better stewards of the earth than us late-comers. Go out and meet some natives: good friends come in all colors!!

libertyminded

I look forward to more fisheries.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.