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Biden Signs Legislation Granting Long-Awaited Water Rights And Land To Five Tribes In Arizona

President Joe Biden signed legislation that granted five Arizona tribes their long-awaited water rights and funding to develop essential infrastructure on historically significant lands. This monumental decision marked a momentous celebration for the Indigenous communities in this region of America. 

After more than two decades of advocacy and hard work, the Colorado River Indian Tribes (CRIT) were successful in their push for approval to lease a portion of their allotted land on the Colorado river. Thanks to dedicated lobbying efforts by numerous tribes during the 117th Congress, this transformative legislation was passed just before its conclusion. 

On January 5th, President Biden signed three acts related to water rights for Native American tribes: the Colorado River Indian Tribes Water Resiliency Act, the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act. 

The CRIT have been striving for decades to monetize their 719,248 acre-feet allocation of the Colorado river. Chairwoman Amelia Flores proudly proclaimed that by using conservation efforts they managed to save a portion of this water and are now able to reap the benefits through leasing it out. The proceeds will be directed towards stabilizing its economy and extending access to much needed resources among members of tribal communities. 

The CRIT, which manages a vast agricultural area and a casino, intends to enhance its canal network and increase water conservation efforts. According to Flores, these actions will empower the tribe to safeguard the river. “The river is a living being, unable to speak for itself. As stewards, we must take responsibility and protect it,” she stated. 

For centuries, the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Navajo and Hopi peoples have been calling the Colorado River Valley and neighboring regions home. Recently, some Navajo and Hopi groups made their way to this area as well. Behind all four tribes lie an undeniable reverence for water – revered by all four Indigenous cultures as a source of life. 

After a long struggle for water rights, the Hualapai Tribe recently achieved success in securing a water settlement. This agreement will bring forth multiple benefits to their economy and community, allocating an impressive 4,000 acre-feet of river water. With this new supply, Grand Canyon West – the tribe’s biggest enterprise – can now access freshwater for its operations. Additionally, homes on the reservation will also be connected to this life-giving resource. 

The White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act recently passed in eastern Arizona making amendments to an existing water rights settlement from 2010. This act not only provides federal funding, but also an extended period of time for the 15,000-member tribe to complete its rural water system and Miner Flat Fam project. A major victory for the community, this new arrangement will bring improved access to life sustaining resources. 

The three water rights bills were introduced by Arizona’s senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly. Flores mentioned that the bill pertaining to her tribe was also supported by other legislators, including representatives Paul Gosar and Raúl Grijalva. Former representative Tom O’Halleran also sponsored two of the three water bills that were passed by Congress. 

Kelly stated, “Given that Arizona and the western states are currently facing a severe drought that disproportionately affects tribal communities, the passage of these three bills is of paramount importance.” 

In December, two other bills were signed into law – the Old Pascua Community Land Acquisition Act and the Blackwater Trading Post Land Transfer Act. Even though they only involve small tracts of land, they are of immense importance to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and Gila River Indian Community, as each piece holds historical significance for both tribal communities. 

The Yaqui Tribe recently confirmed an agreement with the state of Arizona to protect 30 acres in South Tucson, considered a holy land for Pascua Yaquis. This area, known as Old Pascua Village, holds deep cultural roots and is home to sites full of historical value. These include the museum and Cultural Center which represent their experiences after facing persecution in Mexico many years ago. Preserving this space will ensure that they maintain their iconic heritage while providing educational opportunities into understanding how far they have come since then.  

“This bill is necessary in order to create additional economic opportunities for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona and its members,” Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio said after approval in the Senate. “The bill acknowledges the relationship between the Pascua Yaqui and the city of Tucson, is reflective of numerous stakeholder meetings and negotiations, and allows the tribe to preserve our traditional homelands while promoting economic opportunities and new housing options for the community.” 

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