Blessed to have water: Hualapai Tribe praises historic water rights settlement
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — The Hualapai Tribal Nation borders a 108-mile stretch of the Colorado River, and for generations, the tribe has relied solely on unpredictable groundwater supplies as its primary water source.
“The Colorado River runs through our reservation, yet we were never authorized or able to utilize the water that goes by us,” Hualapai Vice Chairman Shelton Scott Crozier said. “We always relied on wells, but nowadays, the wells are running dry.”
The Hualapai Tribe did not have access to the Colorado River due to its ongoing negotiations with the federal government and the state of Arizona as part of Indian Water Right Settlements.
“The water rights issues that we’ve been battling over the years had a significant role in our area,” Crozier said.
The Hualapai Tribe has used water at two primary locations — Peach Springs and Grand Canyon West — but neither has adequate infrastructure to support sustained future use.
But that is all going to change.
After more than a decade of negotiations, the Hualapai Tribe settled with the federal government and the state of Arizona through an agreement known as the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2022.
“It really means a lot to our people,” Crozier said, noting that it has been an uphill battle for the tribe, but this settlement provides the tribe with sustainable water.
“We’re blessed to have water coming to our community for future generations,” he added.
The tribal land for the Hualapai Tribe is located in two areas of Arizona, and their primary land is one million acres along the Grand Canyon in northwest Arizona. The secondary tribal land is 60 acres, located 40 miles south of the primary tribal land.
President Joe Biden signed the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2022 into law in January 2023, becoming the first Indian water rights settlement enacted during the Biden administration.
“Water is a sacred resource and access to water is fundamental to human existence and economic development. Tribal water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety, and empowerment of communities,” Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland said in a statement announcing the settlement.
The Secretary’s Indian Water Rights Office manages, negotiates and oversees the implementation of Indian water rights claims.
The Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2022 will provide water to the Tribe and establish a trust fund of $312 million that the Tribe can use to develop water infrastructure on the Hualapai Nation.
Provisions in the act will help provide certainty to the Tribe and surrounding communities regarding access to water resources, enable Tribal economic growth, and promote Tribal sovereignty and self-sufficiency.
For instance, the tribe now has the right to divert, use, and store 4,000 acre-feet of agricultural priority water of the Central Arizona Project that was previously allocated to non-tribal agricultural entities.
The act also directs the Department of Interior to establish the Hualapai Water Trust Fund Account, where the amounts deposited shall be made available to the tribe for specified purposes, including construction of the Hualapai Water Project.
The project is meant to divert, treat and convey up to 3,414 acre-feet of water per year from the Colorado River for municipal, commercial, and industrial uses on the Hualapai Nation.
Crozier said the settlement allows the tribe to look to the future and start to think about how they will develop and utilize the water they now have access to.
“We never had access to the water when other people that didn’t even sit on the Colorado River had access to it,” he added.
Hualapai Chairwoman Sherry J. Parker said there has always been this unspoken rule within the Hualapai Nation: Don’t use the water or deplete the water supplies because they could not guarantee where they would get more water.
With the settlement in place, Parker said it is a victory for the future of the tribe because now they know their children will have access to water thanks to the settlement’s provisions.
“We will be able to utilize that water in the future, and that will stabilize our community,” she said. “We don’t have to worry anymore.”
Parker said the tribe is thankful for all the state, local and tribal officials who have supported their efforts, including U.S Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly, who sponsored the bill in 2022.
“Our people can move forward with a little bit of comfort knowing that we do have access to something that should have been ours a long time ago,” Parker said.
To celebrate its historical Indian Water Rights Settlement, Hualapai tribal leaders invited federal and state officials to Grand Canyon West in late August to highlight the significance of the water rights settlement.
Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland joined members of the Hualapai Tribe for the celebration, and both commended the settlement and spoke about future settlements with other tribal nations.
Newland said that water rights have been a priority for the Biden administration, which has allocated more than $3.1 billion to fund Indian Water Rights Settlements, more than any other administration in history.
“This is one of the many areas in which the Department of Interior is working to uphold the federal government’s trust responsibility to Tribes,” Newland said. “This investment in and commitment to Indian Country, while long overdue, is unprecedented.”
“It has led to real change on the ground in many tribal communities,” Newland added, including the Hualapai Tribe.
“Across the Western United States, Tribes are navigating an uncertain future as the climate crisis worsens, the arid West grows drier, and precious water resources become scarcer,” Beaudreau said. “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to using every tool at our disposal to deliver on our promises to Indigenous communities.”