WASHINGTON The federal government is finally settling a 112-year battle by Utah's Shivwits Band of the Paiute Tribe for water on its parched reservation near St. George.
"With the water-rights settlement, the future provides more opportunities for jobs, agriculture and economic development," Shivwits Chairman Glenn Rogers told the Deseret Morning News.
Interior Secretary Gale Norton explains that Congress approved a plan for that settlement in 2000 but it required a $24 million appropriation and numerous agreements to be signed by the band, various water agencies, the state engineer, courts and the federal government.
"I am pleased to report that all of the requirements under the Settlement Act have been met,' Norton said. And her department planned to publish a notice in the Federal Register declaring the deal complete.
It gives the Shivwits 4,000 acre-feet of water for their reservation through a variety of innovative projects to recycle water and reduce current losses from canal seepage and evaporation. It also has the tribe undertaking economic development planning to take advantage of the long-sought water.
Rogers says government Indian agents who formed the Shivwits reservation in 1891 were supposed to file for water rights for the tribe but failed to do so, allowing white settlers instead to obtain almost all the available water in the area.
"What we did have was not sufficient for us to grow crops. We didn't even have enough pressure for the water to squirt out of the end of the pipe," he said, noting the tribe historically had farmed along the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers but no longer could.
"So we had no way to be self-sufficient," and most band members work off the reservation, Rogers said.
The tribe filed a lawsuit nearly 25 years ago that if successful would have given it 12,000 acre-feet, roughly equivalent to all the water from the Santa Clara River, threatening supplies used by others in the St. George area.
The settlement of that lawsuit gives the 300-member band 2,000 acre-feet of treated wastewater a year from the St. George Water Reuse Project. While it cannot be used for drinking, it can be used for irrigation and other purposes.
It provides another 1,900 acre-feet from a new pressurized pipeline from Gunlock Reservoir, preventing seepage and evaporation losses from area canals. The deal also gives the band 100 acre-feet from wells on tribal lands.
Congress approved $15 million to go to St. George for the band's share of the water reuse project's costs; $5 million to go to the band for economic development; $3 million for environmental needs; and $1 million for a trust to help the band cover its operation costs of the pipeline.
"In this water-short area of the country, the Shivwits Band, local water users, the city (St. George) and the state came together to develop innovative solutions to address their respective water needs while also working to protect the habitats of species of concern in the basin, such as the Virgin River spinedace," Norton said.
She said it is a model she would like to see copied elsewhere and is an example of the collaboration she has been promoting with her recent Water 2025 initiative to head off future water battles before they begin.
Meanwhile, Rogers said, "This fight has concluded, but another fight is ahead as we try for economic development and decide how to use the water to help the people."
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