Maricopa, Arizona's largest water-using county, has had a steady decline in total water use between 1990 and 2000, despite its population increasing by 900,000 people to more than three million. How is this possible? Agricultural irrigation fell by 30 percent during this period, freeing up massive water supplies for residential development.
Cities and developers can also turn to Indian tribes for water. The leapfrog community of Anthem, 35 miles north of downtown Phoenix, relies on 10,000 acre-feet of water a year leased from the Ak-Chin Indians.
Last month, Congress put the finishing touches on a comprehensive water bill championed by Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl that will have a profound effect on the future of Arizona and its Indian tribes.
The central component of the bill awards 653,500 acre-feet of water to the Gila Indian River Community to settle water-rights claims dating back a century. The Gila Indians and other tribes are expected to use some of this water for agriculture and community development. But they will also be leasing copious quantities back to growth-crazed cities.
The water deals the tribes cut with cities and developers will make Indian gaming revenue look like chump change.
"It will provide an enormous change in their fortunes," Babbitt says. "For the first time, the Indians are really getting a very fair and generous share."
I have only one request of the Gila Indians:
Put a small portion of the tribe's vast water resources back into the barren Gila River bed that cuts through the reservation south of South Mountain. Simply retiring 5,000 acres of a low-value crop like alfalfa will free up 25,000 acre-feet of water, enough to fuel a healthy, year-round stream and riparian habitat.
Perhaps our civic and business leaders would then see how much people love a flowing river, and it would encourage them to release an adequate amount into the Salt to re-create a sliver of that long-lost riparian splendor.
Nothing would do more to improve the overall quality of life in Phoenix than returning marginal flows to the Salt. This could turn our astounding growth inward -- that is, lure residents downtown instead of encouraging them to live in endless outlying suburbia. It would also be a financial windfall to the city's oldest and poorest neighborhoods.
Let the river flow!
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