This special Stakeholder Spotlight post was created in collaboration by CAP, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the city of Tucson
The Pascua Yaqui Tribe is a federally recognized Indian tribe that occupies a Reservation of about 2,000 acres southwest of Tucson. Historically, the Yaqui have lived in this part of the Sonoran Desert for centuries, along with the Tohono O’odham and other tribal nations. Unfortunately, on what little land they have, the earth is dry.
“We’ve been in these lands for thousands of years,” Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio said. “(But) if you look at what is underneath the reservation, every elder told us, there is no water here.”
The Reservation has no access to local surface water, and groundwater pumping is impracticable. Just below the earth’s surface, a thick layer of bedrock — the subterranean extension of neighboring mountains — prohibits well drilling.
But the Pascua Yaqui are a creative and resourceful people. Two key water agreements have begun to turn things around for the Tribe. The first is a water storage and wheeling agreement with the city of Tucson that provides the Tribe with potable water, and the second is a unique inter-tribal leasing arrangement, which provides the Pascua Yaqui with an opportunity for community growth, economic development, and a water source for the future.
A good neighbor
Unlike other tribes, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe does not yet have a water rights settlement. Rather, a 1980 contract with the federal government ensures that the Tribe has access to 500 acre-feet of Indian Priority water via the Central Arizona Project.
That contract now provides the Pascua Yaqui with a reliable water supply, but in the beginning, it also presented a challenge because the tribe didn’t have a water treatment plant that could turn raw CAP water into potable drinking water.
After some creative thinking and honest conversations, the Pascua Yaqui struck a deal with its “neighbor” — the city of Tucson.
As part of the Tribe’s water storage and wheeling agreement with Tucson, the Tribe now deposits CAP water in the Southern Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project, also known as SAVSARP, and Tucson then “wheels” that water through its own system to provide potable water to the homes and businesses on the Reservation.
Although the Pascua Yaqui didn’t realize it at the time, this innovative agreement would serve as an inspiration for additional partnerships between the city of Tucson and its surrounding communities.
“That agreement was a model,” said city of Tucson attorney Chris Avery. Now Tucson has similar partnerships with cities such as Marana, Oro Valley, and many more neighboring communities.
“This one (with the Yaqui) was the first,” said Avery. “We’re really proud of the relationship we have with the Tribe.”
The wheeling agreement with Tucson provided the Tribe with a certain degree of stability, but it was evident early on that the 500 acre-foot CAP allocation — which was based on a calculation that severely underestimated the Tribe’s population growth — was not enough to provide for the Tribal community into the future.
While considering their options for how to augment water supply, some tribal leaders had an idea – why not lease CAP water from another tribe? A lot of tribes with settlements lease water to other users within the state, but as far as the Pascua Yaqui were aware, no one yet had thought about one tribe leasing water from another tribe.
In 2012, the Tribe fashioned the first tribe-to-tribe CAP leases with the Ak-Chin Indian Community and San Carlos Apache Tribe. Since then, the Tribe has leased CAP water from the San Carlos Apache Tribe on an annual basis with annual lease amounts ranging from 500 to 2,230 acre-feet per year. The Pascua Yaqui Tribe was the first in Arizona to initiate an arrangement from one tribal nation to another. The leased water is used to support economic development efforts, including the Pascua Yaqui’s casino and golf course, as well as storage for future use as overall water demand increases from year-to-year on the Reservation. It also enables the tribe to pursue residential growth on the reservation, thanks again to its partnership with Tucson.
“A lot more Yaquis are looking to live here,” said Chairman Yucupicio, who attributes the influx to the high cost of living off-reservation as well as a general desire for community members to be close to their families. He estimates the on-Reservation population will grow to three or four times its current size at build-out. “We want to be able to provide for them.”
Old pastime, new infrastructure
At the heart of the Reservation, a tight grouping of baseball fields serves as a gathering place for culture and community. Baseball is a favorite sport amongst the Pascua Yaqui, with young members participating in national tournaments on a yearly basis. However, maintaining its baseball fields — as well as other public spaces — has become very expensive.
But at the end of last year, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe received good news: A new law, the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), sponsored by Congressman Greg Stanton, will provide the Tribe with funding for an infrastructure project that will pipe CAP water directly to those ballfields in the community.
The WRDA supports Pascua Yaqui’s community-building efforts with financial resources for the construction of a pipeline that brings CAP water directly into the community. Now, raw CAP water can be used for maintaining the community’s baseball fields, which frees up the Tribe’s current allocation of potable water for additional residential construction.
“Schools, parks — you need all that to make sure there’s a healthy community,” said Chairman Yucupicio. “During the pandemic, morale has dropped and depression has risen. We want to invest in our community service centers because you need that for a healthy community.”
Thriving by innovation
Today, the Pascua Yaqui Tribe is a flourishing community that pursues opportunities for growth with creativity and foresight. As it continues to grow, the Tribe is preparing to meet the demands of the future while advancing the way water is managed in the Southwest.
While reflecting on the Tribe’s recent water management success, Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio reminisced on the days before the Tucson Water agreement and the water deal with San Carlos: “I remember driving out here in an old beat up station wagon, and wondering, how are we going to survive out here?”