By Howard Fischer | Capitol Media Services via Arizona Capitol Times
The Gila River Indian Community is threatening to blow up the drought contingency plan because of efforts it says will undermine its claim to water rights.
House Speaker Rusty Bowers is proposing changes to state laws in a way he said will protect the rights of farmers in the Safford Valley who have been “scratching it out” to water from the Gila River.
But attorney Don Pongrace who represents the Gila River Indian Community said what Bowers proposes to do would effectively overturn and nullify a federal appellate court ruling which said that those who are upstream who have not used the water have forfeited those rights.
And he said courts have ruled those rights ‒ and the water that goes with it ‒‒ belong to the tribe.
“These people are not scratching out an existence,” he said of the farmers Bowers said he wants to help. “They’ve been stealing water from the community since 1870.”
More immediately significant, Pongrace said if Bowers pushes HB 2476 the tribe will withdraw from the plan for how the state will deal with the expected shortage of water coming from Lake Mead. That’s crucial because the state is counting on about 500,000 acre feet of water from the tribe, much of it to help Pinal County farmers deal with the cutback in Colorado River water.
“This is a direct assault on the community’s water rights,” Pongrace told Capitol Media Services.