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Gila River Water Shortage: A Productive Partnership between Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Project

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Gila River Water Shortage: A Productive Partnership between Gila River Indian Community and Salt River Project

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Industry: Water supply

SUMMARY: The Gila River Indian Community (Community) in central Arizona has used irrigation to support agriculture for more than 2,000 years. The tribe’s culture is Drought Forum Case Study Gila River Community Salt River ProjectVideo: Arizona Case Studyinextricably linked to the Gila and Salt rivers. Initially, the Community’s relationship with non-Indian settlers was mutually beneficial, as they provided up to two million pounds of grain annually to gold rush camps in the 1860s. Eventually, growing non-Indian settlement upriver from the Community began to have a detrimental impact. Large-scale diversions, combined with a lack of policy to conserve the water, led to declines in agricultural production, famine and widespread starvation. Years of litigation led to the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004, which included the Gila River Indian Community Water Settlement Act. Under the settlement the Community has an annual allocation of 635,000 acre-feet of water and funding for refurbishment of existing irrigation infrastructure to revitalize the traditional agrarian economy. The settlement allowed tribal and non-tribal stakeholders, including Salt River Project (SRP), to find common ground regarding water resources. For example, under a joint venture with SRP called the Gila River Water Storage, LLC, the Community agreed to use a portion of the water for long-term storage credits, 100-year leases and dry-year purchase options.


Upriver diversions of water, combined with a lack of action to protect the Community’s claims to water, caused a severe decline in water available for agricultural production that resulted in widespread starvation and famine in the Community.
Conflicts over water between tribal and non-tribal users led to a mistrust between the parties.
The Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004 provided the Community with water from the Central Arizona Project, but did not return natural flow of the river on Community land.
Completion of on-reservation infrastructure will not be complete until 2030, meaning that the Community will not be able to make the most of their water until then.
Arizona municipal and industrial users are faced with increased demand for water but are subject to limits on use of groundwater.


The Community settled for an annual entitlement of 635,000 acre-feet of water under the Arizona Water Settlements Act of 2004. Of that amount, 311,800 acre-feet are Central Aquifer in GilaA test of the riparian aquifer from December, 2013Arizona Project (CAP) water.
To address the lack of natural river flow on Community land, a riparian managed aquifer recharge facility is being developed. This project will provide cultural and recreational benefits, while eventually creating long-term water storage on the reservation. For many in the tribe, this will be the first tangible benefit from the 2004 settlement.
While the infrastructure needed to utilize water is being completed, the Community worked with SRP and committed to store at least 2 million acre-feet of CAP water between now and 2029 to create long-term storage credits.
             In addition to long-term storage credits, the Community has agreed to make 30,000 acre-feet of CAP water available in the form of 100-year leases. After the year 2029, the Community does not plan to lease out any additional water under 100-year leases.
             Additionally, SRP has the option to purchase up to 100,000 acre-feet per year during dry years, when SRP's shareholders' allocation is less than 2.5 acre-feet per acre.
Long-term storage credits address residential and industrial demands for water.
             Because industrial water users are subject to limits on groundwater, the best option for them is to replace groundwater use with renewable water resources.
            Since long-term storage credits are created by storing CAP surface water, they retain the legal characterization as a renewable source of water.
            Municipal water providers and residential developers in Arizona face similar regulatory hurdles associated with groundwater. Renewable supplies of water must be proven in sufficient quantity to meet projected demands for 100 years before development can occur. Long-term storage credits provide a source of renewable water for future development.


Long-term storage credits provide numerous advantages for industrial, commercial and municipal users because they:
            Are a renewable water supply;
            Do not suffer evaporation losses and can be stored for long periods until needed;
            Not subject to “use it or lose it” abandonment;
            Easily traded within the same Active Management Area;
            Don’t typically require the same kind of treatment that surface water is subject to;
            Can be stored in areas where growth is expected to happen, taking advantage of existing infrastructure while preserving groundwater supplies.
The Community benefits in that they have a means of marketing water until the infrastructure needed to fully utilize their settlement water is completed in 2030.


Presented at the Western Governors' Drought Forum meeting, "Drought Impacts and Solutions in the Manufacturing, Mining and Industrial Sectors," held Oct. 7-8 at the Salt River Project PERA Club in Tempe, Ariz. Download a PDF of this case study.

Look at the slide presentation on the report.