Hualapai Tribe Hopes Water Settlement Finally Happens This Congress

Published: Thursday, May 9, 2019 - 12:43pm
Updated: Wednesday, September 25, 2019 - 10:30am
The Skywalk at Grand Canyon West is a glass walkway 4,000 feet above the riverbed.

The Hualapai reservation, on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, borders the Colorado River.

But tribal Chairman Damon Clarke notes a sharp irony.

“The Colorado River runs right right behind our backyard on the (border) of our reservation if you look at the map,” said Clarke in an interview. “And we don’t get a drop from it. You guys, down there in the Valley, you get tons and tons of water from the river.”

To get access to river water, the tribe is hoping its federal water settlement will finally become law. Earlier this month, Arizona’s congressional delegation sponsored another settlement bill after similar efforts in 2017 and 2016.

If a water rights settlement became law, the Hualapai Tribe would get 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water each year. (An acre-foot can cover one acre of land in a foot of water.)

The current bills, introduced in both the U.S. House and Senate, include:

  • $134.5 million to construct a pipeline bringing most of that water to the reservation, which includes the community of Peach Springs and Grand Canyon West, the tribe’s tourist hotspot;
  • $32 million for operations, maintenance and repairs once the tribe assumes title over the pipeline;
  • $5 million for the Department of Interior to operate it before that time;
  • $2 million for DOI to provide technical assistance to the Hualapai Tribe.

But Interior is still against the specific terms of the settlement.

During testimony in late 2017, Alan Mikkelsen, who was then the deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that while the Department of Interior generally supports settlements for Indian water rights, “we believe the cost to construct a 70-mile pipeline from the Colorado River lifting water over 4,000 feet in elevation will greatly exceed the costs currently contemplated.” In his testimony, Mikkelsen also worried about litigation.

Mikkelsen is now senior adviser to DOI Secretary David Bernhardt. Interior declined an interview, but a spokeswoman said via email that the department’s position on the Hualapai water settlement remains the same.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ01), the lead sponsor of the settlement legislation in the House, said the only sticking point is the dollar amount.

“We probably haven’t settled exactly where that amount falls out, but the premise is that we’re going to be able to work this out,” said O’Halleran, whose district includes the reservation.

Other Native American tribes have water settlements that are fully completed. But not all.

“We need to come to resolution on this that sends a clear signal to other tribes that are working their way through settlements that this type of process can work,” O’Halleran said.

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