By Wayne Schutsky GSN Managing Editor
After nearly a decade of negotiations, Gilbert has agreed to pay the San Carlos Apache Tribe over $31 million in exchange for a 100-year water lease that will help secure enough water to meet state-mandated requirements for the town’s buildout.
Gilbert will lease 5,925 acre feet of Central Arizona Project water from the tribe under the deal to help the town meet its 100-year assured water supply obligations required under the Arizona Groundwater Management Act.
“Gilbert is always seeking out ways to achieve that through both conservation and acquisition,” Mayor Jenn Daniels said. “So we developed a partnership and a relationship with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and we have been able to see a mutually beneficial outcome.”
Daniels said the deal benefits the town by offering water stability and benefits the tribe by providing financial and economic development resources.
The allocation accounts for about 7 percent of Gilbert’s projected water supply at buildout, Town Manager Patrick Banger said.
Unlike more mature communities, such as Phoenix and Mesa, which have larger water allotments, Gilbert relies on a patchwork of smaller allocations from a variety of sources to meet its water needs.
The town’s portfolio includes allocations from Central Arizona Project, Salt River Project, Roosevelt Water Conservation District, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
“We’ve had to search a little bit longer and a little bit harder to put our portfolio together, but we are right on the cusp of completing that, thankfully, and the San Carlos Apache agreement was a key piece of that,” Banger said.
The deal was eight years in the making. The town originally came to an agreement with the San Carlos Apache Tribe in 2010 to lease a portion of water allocation to the tribe in 1999 through its Water Rights Settlement Agreement.
However, a complex web of jurisdictions and legal oversight issues prevented the deal from advancing until recently. Specifically, the Bureau of Reclamation, as a trustee of the tribe, had objections to the deal.
Over the past decade, the town worked with the tribe, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior to resolve the issues.
One issue had to do with how water affected by the deal would be allocated if water levels in Lake Mead and other reservoirs fall into restricted zones and force water allocation restrictions.
“We had a very long back-and-forth discussion, and we have finally been able to bring to closure to that,” Banger said.
In part, the deal stipulates that in times of shortage, Gilbert’s lease will be subordinate to two other San Carlos Apache leases and the tribe’s use of water on its own land. Gilbert also is prohibited from using water from the lease on golf courses or for mining purposes.
A meeting in May 2017 between Daniels and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke provided a breakthrough. Zinke put the town in touch with Vincent DeVito, counselor to the secretary for energy policy, who helped move the process along.
“We worked directly with Mr. DeVito to break through the logjam that we were experiencing and get the language clarified in a manner that was acceptable to all the parties involved and finally bring this to conclusion,” Banger said.
For Daniels, the deal is a relief because the lease agreement negotiations have lasted for nearly all of her tenure as a councilwoman and mayor.
“We always think about the long-term implications this has for Gilbert,” she said. “To me, this means that Gilbert long into the future will be a sustainable community, and there is still a lot of work we need to do to ensure that, but to have the water rights that we need in order to be successful, that is the victory.”
As it has attempted to add allocations to its water portfolio, Gilbert also has pursued water conservation efforts.
For decades, Banger said, the town has been recharging reclaimed waste water through areas like the Riparian Preserve into underground aquifers. The town now has over 400,000 acre feet of water stored.
“Gilbert is zero-discharge (town), meaning all reclaimed water coming through our treatment plant is reused in the community,” he said, noting reclaimed water is used on golf courses and HOA common areas or is recharged.
Daniels said the town also will conduct free home water-meter inspections at residents’ request and will provide guidance on landscape maintenance to reduce water use.
It also teaches third-graders education in water conservation through its Water Wise Gilbert program.
Through that program, the town also encourages businesses to use water more efficiently, it and will provide an efficiency checkup and other resources.
Daniels said the benefits of the lease and conservation efforts will be seen “much farther down the road than our tenure here. It has everything to do with the future of Gilbert.”