Water plays a key role in economic development for Native American communities

Managing water resources here in the arid Southwest has always been an issue. For the most part, annual rainfall and runoff from snowpack in the mountains have never been enough by themselves to meet the demand of burgeoning economic activity and ever-growing populations, even before the recent drought and climate change began to impact the environment.

Many metro area governmental agencies, water experts and utilities have been working for decades to plan for long-term water sustainability and the result has been the development of a diverse portfolio of water resources, a unique water banking system and reclamation water programs that have mostly averted the full-on water crisis that Arizona’s western neighbor, California, is now experiencing. For some Native American communities, however, the need is still acute. In the Navajo Nation, for example, 40% of the homes are without running water. In fact, vast areas of the Navajo and Hopi Reservations must haul in weekly allocations of water.

Land and water have long been at the heart of Arizona Native American communities, since many of them depended on agriculture as a way of life. In fact, there is archeological evidence that as far back as 300 B.C., the Hohokam people who inhabited the region, hand-dug a network of canals to divert spring runoff to irrigate their fields. These early O’odham ancestors provided the basis for the formation of some of today’s present day tribes such as the Tohono O’odham, Salt-River Pima Maricopa, Ak-Chin, and Gila River Indian Communities.

As frontier settlement pushed West, tribes were partitioned off in reservations and the rivers that were the lifeblood of these reservations were often diverted upstream for new settlements and economic endeavors. On the reservations, crops died, people starved, and tribes sank into poverty. Without the government structure or personal ownership of houses and land, most tribal members had no way to attain outside capital or commercial loans to build infrastructure or start businesses that would pull themselves out of poverty. In addition, Native Americans were not granted the right to vote until 1948, so when many water and land allocations were being made, tribal members had no voice in the process.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s that the American Indian Civil Rights movement inspired tribes to assert their own self-determination. That’s when the most resolute tribes forged ahead to elect their first tribal councils and write their initial constitutions. By building institutions of self-government that were culturally appropriate to the particular Native American community, tribes finally had the foundation to assert their self-governing power to increase their chances of creating sustainable economic development.

Ak-Chin was one of the first Arizona Native American communities to do this and to settle their water rights, which guarantees a water allocation to the Reservation. The creation of government coupled with the water rights settlement spawned the formation of its first enterprise, Ak-Chin Farms, which has grown to one of the largest farming operations in the country. It has also increased the tribe’s capacity to diversify its industries. Other Arizona tribes have also settled their water rights, but many tribes have been unable to complete the process and this hinders their economic development progress.

Non-Natives often attribute the poverty that exists in most Native American communities to alcoholism, lack of education or even lack of ambition, but these societal problems are merely symptoms of a deeper issue: without water, economic development is impossible and without economic development, tribes cannot emerge from poverty.

Managing water resources dates as far back as Native Americans’ earliest ancestors. Water scarcity made tribes adapt farming methods, modify living circumstances and it made most Native Americans appreciate this precious resource in a way that is often taken for granted by other Americans. It is why Native Nations look for ways to adapt technology, build the infrastructure and attract the green industry that will share our vision. Because this is not just an issue about water sustainability; it is about sustainability of our people.