Plea issued to fund design of White Mountain Apache water system

March 5, 2021
In The News

The federal government must immediately knock loose the $13 million needed to design the White Mountain Apache dam and water system and get the long-promised project back on track, top Arizona representatives say.

U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran and Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema wrote a joint letter calling on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to find the money needed to deal with cost overruns and keep the project running — either with leftover money this year or with a new allocation.

“If the Rural Water System is delayed or fails for any reason the tribe will continue to face drinking water shortages and all of the health risks, including COVID-19, associated with a lack of access to a safe and reliable water supply,” wrote the two senators and O’Halleran, who represents the congressional district that includes most of eastern Arizona, including all of the White Mountains.

The bureau set aside $12 million to design the $200-million project, which includes 160-foot-high, concrete dam and a rural water system on the reservation. But unanticipated design problems and overruns ballooned the estimated design cost to $25 million.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe in 2010 agreed to relinquish its century-old claim to as much as 175,000 acre-feet of water in the Black and White rivers, in return for rights to 52,000 acre-feet and money to build a reservation water system.

The tribe also agreed to a long-term lease of half of its allotment to Valley cities and Central Arizona Project water users in return for a payment of $7.8 million.

Then-President Donald Trump two years ago finally signed the bill authorizing construction of the Miner Flat Dam on the North Fork of the White River. The full project includes an 8,620-acre-foot reservoir, a 14.55-million-gallons-a-day water treatment plant and about 60 miles of pipeline reaching all the way to Cibecue. The full project will cost $200 million.

Tribal officials hope the dam will bolster economic development and provide safe drinking water to 12,000 people living on the 1.6 million-acre reservation. The lack of safe drinking water has contributed to the toll of COVID-19 on the reservation, say tribal officials. Some communities — like Carrizo — have no drinking water system, forcing residents to haul in water. Most residents depend on a network of “failing” wells.

The tribe’s ancestral lands include the headwaters of the Little Colorado and Salt rivers. The Salt River feeds the chain of reservoirs that made it possible to populate the Valley. However, the century-long legal standoff effectively prevented the tribe from developing its own water storage and distribution system in the White Mountains.

The 2010 water settlement seemed to have finally broken that deadlock, just as Arizona’s water supply problems grew more critical.

The tribe agreed to surrender more than two-thirds of its potential water claim in return for help building a water system to put some 25,000 acre-feet to use on the reservation.

Drought has gripped Arizona for most of the past 20 years, forcing big cutbacks in the supply of CAP water from Lake Mead to Phoenix and Tucson. The White Mountain Apache Water settlement gave the tribe rights to 25,000 acre-feet of CAP water, which it leases to Valley cities and towns. The reservoirs on the Colorado River are now about half full, with some projections suggesting the state will have to reduce its use of water from that river by 40% in coming decades — making the water the White Mountain Apaches have agreed to lease all the more critical.

However, the promised construction of the Miner Flat Dam and related water systems has lagged, due to unanticipated problems with seepage and design. This led to a shortfall in funding, stalling the project.

The letter from the three lawmakers went to Tanya Trujillo, principal deputy assistant secretary of water and science in the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The lawmakers said the “desperately needed” project can’t go forward until the Bureau of Reclamation completes the design for the project but funding proved inadequate. The shortfall includes $7 million the federal government had agreed to reimburse the tribe for design costs plus $6 million to complete the design work.

The letter may get extra attention in the Biden administration, considering the lawmakers involved and the pivotal role of Native Americans in President Biden’s narrow win in Arizona.

Kelly and Sinema are moderate senators crucial to the survival of many of Biden’s most ambitious policy proposals in the evenly divided senate.

O’Halleran is a moderate Democrat in a closely divided House and a member of several bipartisan caucuses.

Moreover, the Biden administration has nominated the first Native American cabinet member in history. Former congresswoman Deb Haaland would head the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation. She’s a member of the Laguna Pueblo, who has said she’s a 35th generation resident of New Mexico.