This is Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. And this is What’s Up with Water, your “need-to-know news” of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you. 
In the United States, the city of Flint is nearing a milestone. The Associated Press reports that fewer than 500 lead service lines remain in the Michigan city that just a few years ago was in the midst of a lead crisis. More than 9,700 lead service lines have been replaced so far, thanks to $120 million in state and federal funding. Service lines connect city water mains to individual homes. The lead crisis began in 2014, when officials switched the city’s drinking water source to the Flint River. After that switch, officials failed to properly treat the water, which corroded the pipes and caused lead particles to flake into the water they held. Officials said that checking and replacing the remaining 500 pipes could be done in the next month.
Elsewhere in Michigan, the city of Detroit announced that it will extend a moratorium on water shutoffs until 2022. The Detroit Free Press reports that the city hopes to phase out water shutoffs altogether. Officials have recruited Detroit’s former public health director Dr. Abdul El-Sayed to help identify state and federal funding that would further the no-shutoff goal. Local activists have been pushing for an end to water shutoffs for years, joining a broader movement to end the practice. In 2014, the United Nations called the shutoffs a “violation of the most basic human rights of those residents.”
In Australia, new documents show that a plan to convert three open-cut coal mines into “pit lakes” would harm the Latrobe River system. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that documents obtained by the advocacy group Environment Victoria also show that the creation of the pit lakes in the Latrobe Valley would change water resources. It could mean that, by the 2030s, the Latrobe River system would not have enough water for minimum environmental flows. That could mean harm to the environment and to Aboriginal cultural values which are attached to a flowing river. The findings have raised serious questions about the government’s plan to divert mass amounts of water for the project. Filling the mining pits with water is a longstanding reclamation tactic to reduce the risk of underground fires after the coal has been dug out.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the Colorado River basin, where legal maneuvers could boost flexibility for water use in a drying region.
The water rights held by the Colorado River Indian Tribes are a valuable asset, and tribal leadership is seeking congressional approval to sell them — for the benefit of the tribes, the state’s high-growth cities and perhaps the environment itself. The tribes — known as CRIT for short — have lands stretching along 56 miles of the lower Colorado River. Most of the reservation is in Arizona, with a minor part in California. The tribes’ right to divert water from the river for its use in Arizona is considerable – it’s more than twice what the state of Nevada gets from the Colorado River.
By law, that water is to be used on the reservation. But if tribes convince Congress to allow off-reservation leasing, the legal change would free up a large volume of water in a drought-stricken region that is withering as the planet warms. According to CRIT’s planning, as much as 150,000 acre-feet per year could be made available for leasing.
That water would be prized in high-growth cities and industries in the urban corridor between Phoenix and Tucson, where four out of five state residents live. Money from the leases would allow the tribes to pay for improvements to irrigation infrastructure, health care, education, law enforcement, and other government services. Environmental groups see the potential for leased water to be used for habitat restoration.
Amelia Flores, who was elected last week as the tribes’ next leader, said she “fully supports” the effort to secure federal legislation to allow water leasing. In a statement, she said “This is our economic future. It is needed for water security in Arizona, and with it we will be better able to protect the river for future generations.”
Dennis Patch is the current chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes. He said the effort to market CRITS water began years ago. The effort accelerated recently as the drying Southwest began to put pressure on water supplies in the entire Colorado River basin. In a referendum in January 2019, CRIT members authorized the council to seek congressional approval for leasing. The vote was prompted by an attempt in 2018 to recall all nine council members over some residents’ objections to water leasing.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes’ water rights are not like those held by most tribes in the American West. Other tribes have quantified their rights through acts of Congress. CRIT, by contrast, secured its water through a U.S. Supreme Court decision, in 1963. Because the CRIT water rights are held in trust by the federal government, Congress must explicitly authorize off-reservation leases. That’s according to Margaret Vick, the tribes’ water lawyer. Last October, CRIT unveiled draft federal legislation that would authorize leasing.
In Arizona, tribes that receive water from the Central Arizona Project canal are allowed to lease their water. Several have done so, including the [HEEL-ah ] Gila River Indian Community, which signed a $27 million agreement with Phoenix in 2008. Under the 100-year lease, the tribe provides 15,000 acre-feet each year to Phoenix.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes leasing program requires other authorizations in addition to federal legislation. The tribes will enter into an agreement with the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation for verifying and reporting the water leased. A second agreement with the state outlines the notification process about the leased water.
The Arizona Department of Water Resources told Circle of Blue that the purpose of the agreement is only for sharing information. The state will not have veto authority over any leases.
Crucially, the leased water retains its top position in Arizona’s priority system. That means the water is the first to be delivered out of the state’s Colorado River allocation and is highly unlikely to be cut off. That’s important insurance because the river flows have already waned due to a warming planet – and those flows and are expected to further diminish.
The proposed legislation has several caveats. It does not apply toward the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ water rights on the California portion of the reservation. The leased water cannot be used in the northeastern corner of Arizona, because it is outside the lower basin. And the leased water must come from a reduction in use on CRIT lands.
CRIT chairman Patch called the leasing proposal a win for Arizona water users, for the river, for his people, and for the reservation economy. CRIT is already proving its commitment to assist the basin. The tribes are participating in a land-fallowing program that stores the conserved water in Lake Mead.
Others providing public comment at a hearing this week agreed. Jennifer Pitt, the Colorado River program director at the National Audubon Society, gave her “enthusiastic support” for the proposal, arguing that it was a matter of fairness and flexibility. Fairness because other tribes are allowed to lease water. And flexibility because there are further water shortages ahead in the basin. Pitt also noted the potential for leases to support ecosystem health. Water that is leased and left in the river could restore habitat for endangered species such as the southwest willow flycatcher.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation was established in 1865. Tribal leaders today say it’s time for them to be the guides of their future.  As Tommy Drennan, a member of the CRIT council, put it  “This is about our self-determination. It’s now our time to be in charge of our water.”
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