Arizona Department of Water Resources Director Tom Buschatzke on Wednesday told a panel of U.S. senators that an agreement to settle a tribal water-rights claim in northwestern Arizona constitutes a rare resolution that creates positive outcomes for all involved.
In both written and oral testimony, Buschatzke expressed Arizona’s strong support of S. 1770 – the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2017, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain – to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
In his opening statement, Buschatzke called the agreement “a great step forward.”
He told the panel that the State of Arizona is strongly supportive of S. 1770, which formalizes an agreement reached in 2016 between the Tribe, the State of Arizona and several other major Arizona water users.
The United States participated in the negotiations through a team appointed by the Secretary of the Interior.
The agreement provides 4,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water annually to the Hualapai Tribe. As sponsor, Sen. Flake welcomed Director Buschatzke to the hearing.
In written testimony, Buschatzke told the senators that it represents a major step forward in providing water-certainty to all water users throughout Arizona.
“Half of the 22 federally recognized Indian tribes in Arizona still have unresolved water rights claims,” wrote Buschatzke.
“Resolving these claims through settlement is a strategic priority for the State, not only because it will avoid the cost and uncertainty of litigating the claims, but it will provide certainty to all water users in the state regarding available water supplies in the most expeditious manner possible,” he said.
The United States also will benefit from the reduced risk of costs associated with litigating the Tribe’s water-rights claims, Buschatzke noted.
Director Buschatzke observed that the agreement constitutes an economic opportunity for the Tribe, whose lands enjoy “breathtaking views of the west rim of the Grand Canyon.”
The Tribe operates the famous “Skywalk” tourist attraction that the western edge of the canyon, which attracts an estimated one million visitors annually. The Tribe has announced plans to expand that attraction.
By providing the Tribe with a renewable source of water from the Colorado River, the agreement is consistent with State policy of conserving groundwater supplies for times of drought, the Director wrote.
“Because the aquifer beneath the Tribe’s reservation extends to areas off the reservation, the Tribe’s use of a renewable water supply will help preserve groundwater supplies not just for the Tribe, but for non-tribal water users in the region,” said Buschatzke.
In his written testimony, the Water Resources Director broke down the financial responsibilities that each of the parties agreed to shoulder in 2016.
Those investments included a congressional appropriation of $134.5 million to build a pipeline to deliver the Colorado River water to Peach Springs and to the Tribe’s Grand Canyon West development. In addition, S. 1770 would authorize annual operation, maintenance and replacement costs of $32 million, as well as other federal expenditures.
Under questioning from Sen. Flake during the hearing, Buschatzke assured the committee that the infrastructure and water would “go exclusively to the Hualapai.”
Non-federal contributions to the agreement “are significant,” said Buschatzke.
The State of Arizona agreed to “firm” 557.5 acre-feet of the 4,000 acre-foot annual allocation to the Tribe, at a cost of $3.2 million to Arizona.
“The financial benefits that the United States will receive through the settlement will greatly exceed the costs that the United States will incur in constructing a pipeline to bring water from the Colorado River to the Tribe’s reservation,” Buschatzke wrote to the Senate panel.