September 28, 2023 3:06 am

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Gila River Indian Community Breaks Ground on Pipeline Project to Address Colorado River Drought

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by Shondiin Silversmith, Arizona Mirror
May 23, 2023

Only a month after finalizing funding agreements, the Gila River Indian Community broke ground on its new Reclaimed Water Pipeline Project to help the community with water resources and conserve more water in Lake Mead.

The 19.4-mile pipeline was developed in record time, said Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, and the community “continues to lead the way in addressing the historic drought impacting Arizona and the Southwest.”

Tribal leaders, federal and state officials, and project and construction leaders gathered on May 19 for a groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site for the first phase of the Reclaimed Water Pipeline Project near Sacaton.

“To say this project is on a fast track is really an understatement, but that level of urgency in developing and constructing infrastructure projects that’ll help conserve water at this critical time is essential when we’re dealing with a megadrought,” Lewis said. 

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By taking water conservation seriously and working with their federal and Colorado River partners, Lewis said they could make a meaningful difference for not only the Gila River Indian Community but for millions of people across the Southwest.

The pipeline project will move A+ reclaimed water the Gila River Indian Community has through its Central Arizona Project exchange agreements with Mesa and Chandler, which were part of its 2004 water settlement with the state of Arizona. 

Project Director David H. Dejong said the project is broken into two phases. Phase one will start with constructing a gravity-fed pipeline line, allowing the reclaimed water to flow downhill and move it from the City of Mesa and then be discharged into the Santan Canal.

Phase two will be a pipeline that takes up to 15,700 acre-feet from the City of Chandler reclaimed water and moves it 71 feet uphill, according to Dejong. Once that is complete, the water will join with the 29,400 acre-feet of Mesa reclaimed water, which will then be discharged into the Pima Canal.

Dejong said the beauty of this project plan is when they can move the water, it can be used on 95% of the Gila River Indian Community’s current farmland and 97% of the community’s future farmland.

Because of how drastically climate change and drought impact the Gila River and Colorado River systems, the Gila River Farms Tribal Corporate Farm will suffer the most.

“The community’s tribal farm will face shortages at some point in the future without additional water,” Dejong said. “The reclaimed water pipeline, therefore, is a great example of the strength of the federal, tribal nation-to-nation relationship and how that partnership can be used to strengthen all parties.”

The pipeline will allow the Gila River Indian Community to use this water flexibly and free up the remaining amounts of Colorado River water delivered to the Gila River Indian Community through the CAP system.

Gila River Indian Community officials estimate that the pipeline project will reduce the use of the Colorado River on tribal land long-term by up to 20,000 acre-feet annually. 

The Gila River Indian Community has also committed to making up to 200,000 acre-feet of these water savings available to the Bureau of Reclamation over a 10-year period, with a minimum of 78,000 acre-feet to be left in Lake Mead as system-efficiency water over that period.

Planning for the pipeline started in September of 2022, the project and funding were announced in April and officials broke ground on May 19. The pipeline is an $83 million project funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and annual appropriations.

Tribal leaders, federal and state officials, and project and construction leaders gathered on May 19 for a groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site for the first phase of the Reclaimed Water Pipeline Project near Sacaton. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

Lewis said that this reclaimed water pipeline is one of the first major water conservation projects funded by the bipartisan infrastructure law, and it is an Arizona-centric project.

The Gila River Indian Community worked alongside the Bureau of Reclamation and its design and supply team to get construction started immediately, and the project is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2024.

The project will generate an estimated 20,000 acre-feet of water per year, nearly 80,000 of which will shore up elevations of Lake Mead over the next decade, said U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton, who was present at the groundbreaking.

“We are pleased to join the Gila River Indian Community as we commemorate the start of this important project to deliver reclaimed water for on-reservation uses and to augment Colorado River supplies,” Touton said.

“Working in partnership with tribes and other communities across the West, we remain committed to enhancing the resiliency of the West to drought and climate change by deploying resources to conserve water and increase water use efficiency,” she added. 

T&T Stantec Construction has been contracted to install more than 19 miles of pipeline and two lift stations, according to GRIC, and Diamond Plastics is handling the pipe fabrication in Casa Grande. The design of the pipeline and pump stations were put together with Stantec Consulting.

“The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is already making historic investments in our water infrastructure — improving drought resilience in tribal communities and big cities alike,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Phoenix. “Now we need to keep this momentum going and get more federal dollars from the Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act out the door to continue conserving water long-term.”

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