Rod Lewis, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, will join the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board, which manages the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile canal that moves water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson.
(Photo: Christine Keith/The Republic)

, The Republic | azcentral.com

An attorney who helped negotiate the largest tribal water agreement in U.S. history has become the first Native American to take a seat on the board that oversees almost half of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation.

Rod Lewis, a member of the Gila River Indian Community, will join the Central Arizona Water Conservation District Board, which manages the Central Arizona Project, the 336-mile canal that moves water from the Colorado River to Phoenix and Tucson.

Gov. Doug Ducey made the appointment.

“At a time when Arizona and its Colorado River system partners are working hard to find solutions to the complex issues facing us, it is good to have a CAWCD board member of Rod’s experience working with us,” Ducey said in a statement.

Lewis filled the open Maricopa County seat created by the resignation of Guy Carpenter, a term that will expire in 2018. If Lewis runs and wins the seat, he would become the first Native American elected to the state board.

Lewis has spent much of his life fighting for water rights on behalf of tribes in Arizona and across the nation. With Lewis as the lead attorney, the Gila River community won a century-long battle for water rights in 2004, part of the largest tribal water settlement in U.S. history.

The Arizona Water Settlements Act, signed by President George W. Bush, set aside billions of gallons of water for Arizona tribes, a deal that helped avoid lawsuits that could have spanned decades. The CAP board oversees delivery of a large percentage of that water to the tribes.

Many people, Lewis said, lack an understanding of the historic rights Arizona’s 22 federally-recognized tribes have to state water resources, the devastation endured when those rights were usurped or the fight to regain those rights.

“It’s important to know that Indian tribes receive almost half of the water from the Central Arizona Project,” he said. “And I think tribes, from time to time, have felt that their interests were not being represented.”

Drought, dams and diversions

Francine Sallie Manuel remembered it as the “Bad Year.”

In 1941, Manuel and her husband watched with others of the Tohono O’odham Nation as drought turned desert earth to dust. Their crops withered and their cattle died. Like a stream dependent on seasonal rains, Manuel and her husband were without the lifeblood of her community. Manuel recalled in her book, “Desert Indian Woman: Stories and Dreams,” the year the drought forced her, as it did many others, to leave her family and tribal lands in southern Arizona.

Manuel and her husband left their children with her grandparents to find work in Tucson.

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