Saturday, November 26, 2011

Some worthwhile things to read

I'm way overdue on one of these and only a little bit on the other.

I have often wondered if the concept of unitization (a governance regime for oil/gas reservoirs that imposes reservoir-wide management by combining the interests of multiple producers under a single management entity) could be applied to aquifer management.  In my opinion there are certain aspects of existing forms of aquifer management that incorporate elements of unitization - adjudicated groundwater basins probably come closest, but none are truly unitization as practiced in the oil fields.  Todd Jarvis, who is on the faculty of Oregon State University, as part of their Institute for Water and Watersheds, recently authored a paper (links to the abstract, I think you have to pay for the full paper) that looks at this idea from a theoretical perspective.  Todd points out in an email that this approach might be useful in places, such as California, that have very little existing management of groundwater resources but considerable experience with unitization in oil fields.  It's an interesting idea that I think merits further study.

The other document that is of great interest to me is the final Cornerstones Report on Market-Based Responses to Arizona's Water Sustainability Challenges prepared by the talented folks at Ecosystem Economics and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation under a grant from the Walton Family Foundation (who have been funding a number of initiatives related to preservation of riparian ecosystems in Arizona).  I haven't had a chance to do much more than glance through the report, but I did have a chance to review a draft copy last winter and participated in one of the workshops that helped brainstorm ideas to inform this report.  It's a very honest and thorough assessment of the realities and challenges associated with using market-based approaches to securing water for environmental needs in Arizona and I highly recommend taking a look if this interests you.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The White Man's Viewpoint on Indian Water Rights

This is purely coincidence - but just after I decided to post something about Indian water settlements I came across this opinion piece recently published in the Phoenix paper.  Don't be mislead by the title referring to the "role" of Indian tribes in Arizona's water future.  This is the same role tribes have had throughout history - donors of water supplies to non-Indians.

The author notes that the story of how the Indians came to control a major portion of Arizona's Colorado River water supplies is "too complicated and lengthy to be told" in his short opinion piece, but then goes on to completely disregard the significance of that story in concluding that there has been an "unfair distribution of Arizona's Colorado River water... ."

Giving people the impression that tribes have been highly favored in the apportionment of water in this state, when in fact they have barely been compensated for the fact that over the previous 100 years the outrageous favoritism toward non-Indians in water supply management left tribes impoverished, thirsty, and unable to pursue many traditional aspects of their cultures, is clearly disingenuous if not simply dangerous.

And as I plan to lay out in my next post, even the rights that tribes have earned in their settlements may turn out to be mirages, once the full cost of that water comes to bear.  The views expressed in Mr. Zarbin's piece need to be denounced in very strong terms and the rights of tribes to their water must be protected.  When non-Indians can come to terms with that, then the tribes might be willing to become a larger part of Arizona's water future.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Failed Promise of Indian Water Settlements, Pt. 1

If you know me, or know this blog well, you might be aware that I work for an Indian tribe in Arizona.  While my views expressed in this blog post are clearly informed by my work with that tribe, they in no way express the views of the tribe itself and I write this not as an advocate for any specific tribe but to shed light on some challenges for tribes in Arizona, specifically, but my observations may have applications outside Arizona.

I will try to present this story in two parts - there's too much for one post, maybe too much for two, but that remains to be seen.  I'll start by laying out the history and rationale behind the existing water rights settlements (focusing on Arizona because that's what I'm familiar with) in this post, then explaining why they amount to failed promises in the next.

In my work I have been involved in the implementation of one very significant water rights settlement, as well as participating in negotiations for another settlement being sought by this same tribe.  I have learned a great deal about how such settlements work and how they are developed.  I have also learned that the promise of those settlements - intended to compensate these tribes, who were in Arizona, using water to support their communities, economies, and cultures for hundreds (if not thousands) of years before the arrival of non-Natives and their boundless thirst for water to support their farms, mines, and cities - is currently proving to be yet another of many empty promises made by the U.S. government to tribal sovereign nations over the past 200 years.

The Arizona Water Settlements Act (AWSA) was enacted in 2004 (but not actually implemented until 2007).  It is a complex, often cumbersome piece of legislation that attempted to resolve, in a single legislative action, several lawsuits (via negotiated settlement agreements that became part of the legislation), several pending Federal reserved water rights claims in the largest surface water adjudication (this link goes to a webpage with all relevant documents in the adjudications) in Arizona, the repayment obligations of the State of Arizona to the federal government for construction of the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the reallocation of hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of Colorado River water that had been under long-term contract to several irrigation districts in Arizona.  What is truly amazing is that most of that was actually accomplished.

The tribes that received settlements through this legislation were the Gila River Indian Community and the Tohono O'odham Nation (the links provided go to the Arizona Dept. of Water Resources website, which has comprehensive summaries of each settlement), and to a minor extent, the San Carlos Apache Tribe.  The Gila River tribe received a water entitlement that totaled over 650,000 acre feet of CAP water, groundwater, effluent, and other surface water sources.  The Tohono O'odham received 66,000 acre feet of CAP water plus rights to 13,200 acre feet of groundwater.  The legislation authorized use of money from the Lower Colorado River Basin Development Fund (sort of a slush fund for lower basin projects left over from the Colorado River Basin Project Act) to pay for much of the cost of the CAP water that was included in the settlements, as well as for construction of irrigation projects to put that water to use.

The intent of the settlements was to compensate the tribes for the fact that their surface and groundwater supplies were taken, over many years, to support the growth of Anglo communities.  The settlements incorporated both water and money - the water intended to provide the tribes with a resource for economic development; the money to enable purchase of the water (and development of things like farms to use the water).  The money was necessary because, in most cases, the water included in the settlements was Colorado River water, delivered by the CAP.  The delivery costs for this water are significant.  This water source was necessary because the surface water previously relied on by tribes is long gone and groundwater was well on its way to being in the same state.

In exchange for agreeing to these settlements the tribes were giving up all future claims to water as compensation for what was lost.  They were supposed to be getting water and the ability to use that water to compensate them for the considerable lost economic opportunity that resulted from having their water taken previously.

These are the things that were promised to the tribes in return for settling their water rights claims.  In the next post I'll lay out why I think the government may soon fail to deliver on that promise.