Death of Arizona’s largest lake affects San Carlos Apache Tribe – In depth fact and history report

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Water research community sadden by their loss.

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Physical facts: Location : Gila / Graham / Pinal counties, Arizona, USA. Max. length 23 mi, Max. width 2 mi, Surface area 19,500 acres. The managing agency is the San Carlos Apache Tribe Recreation & Wildlife Dept. Because it is located within the 3,000-square-mile (7,800 km2) San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, it is thus subject to tribal regulations.

After the construction of the Coolidge Dam was complete in 1928 the reservoir began to fill gradually after 1930 and San Carlos Lake was formed. However it is to be noted this is really a man made reservoir that is rimmed by 158 miles (254 km) of shoreline not a naturally formed lake, and it took almost 50 years to reach its full capacity. Very rarely would San Carlos Lake stay above a two third full capacity.

The lake averages 19,500 acre feet of water in a good season, making it the largest body of water within Arizona. However because of demanding irrigation needs, the water level at the lake sometimes is low enough to kill its self-sustaining fish, but during wet years, the water can over-top Coolidge Dam. Since construction of the dam, the lake has been nearly empty at least 20 times, and has been full only three times. In February 2010, San Carlos Lake stood at only seven percent of capacity and in August of 2012 “one” percent.

Death of Arizona’s largest lake

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Forecast by reporter Lee Allen on March 20th 2003.

Nearby San Carlos Lake, an Apache tribal entity that gets drawn down periodically for summertime agricultural needs, fed by the Gila River, it is one of the state’s largest inland bodies of water when full, but it currently hovers at 4-5 percent of capacity, nearly at the point when fish kill can occur. No stranger to sacrificing aquatic life for farming needs, it’s a lake that currently stands much as it has throughout its lifetime –on the edge of disaster. From Lee Allen’s article “Dry Despair”

Death of Arizona’s largest lake

[toggle title=” Water supply in San Carlos Reservoir ” height=”auto”]

Following abbreviations are used frequently: Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) / Environmental Assessment(EA) / Central Arizona Project (CAP) / San Carlos Apache Tribe (Tribe) / San Carlos Irrigation Project (SCIP). acre feet (af) / San Carlos Reservoir (Reservoir)

Water supply in San Carlos Reservoir is dependent on storm cycles that produce large, often flashy flows within the upper Gila watershed. Input from precipitation generally is distributed bimodally over the year, occurring during the winter months as a result of storms originating in the north Pacific Ocean, and during the summer monsoon season as result of convective thunderstorms which form from moisture drawn into the region from the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California (Sellers and Hill, 1974). In Arizona, the watershed drains approximately 7,430 square miles above the Reservoir. Agriculture is the major use of surface water in the upper watershed. Irrigation water is obtained by agricultural interests from alluvial wells near the channel and diversions of the river upstream from the Reservoir. The Gila River is intermittent where it enters the Reservoir.

Water discharged from Coolidge Dam flows approximately 68 miles down the Gila River to the SCIP-operated Ashurst-Hayden Diversion Dam. At the diversion, Gila River water is conveyed through the Florence-Casa Grande Canal to the Pima Canal. CAP water is turned out from the Fannin-McFarland Aqueduct and into the Pima Feeder Canal, which discharges into the Pima Canal. Surface water from the Gila River and CAP are subsequently blended in the Pima Canal with groundwater from wells located near the canal alignment. Both GRIC and SCIDD lands receive water from the Pima Canal. Exchanged Gila River water that is retained in the Reservoir is replaced by CAP deliveries to the Pima Canal.

Irrigation demand and the seasonal, flashy nature of river flows produce reservoir levels that can fluctuate dramatically from year to year. Flooding has filled the Reservoir to capacity 8 times in 5 years since storage began in 1928. Water levels have stayed above 50,000 af in 29 of the last 67 years, while drawdown to less than one percent of capacity has occurred in 27 years during the same period. Total dry-up of the Reservoir was recorded 21 times in 12 years between 1945 and 1972. A severe drawdown in 1990 was averted when Congress directed BIA to use SCIP power revenues to purchase 30,000 af of CAP water to exchange for reservoir water. Regional drought in 1997 and 1999 through 2003 required additional water exchanges with SCIP users to establish and conserve a minimum pool

Release of water from the Reservoir is dependent on irrigation demand, the availability of SCIP-owned stored water, and the amount of water flowing from the San Carlos and Gila Rivers. Chronic drought since 1999 has severely reduced inflows to the Reservoir and depleted supplies of stored water available to downstream irrigators. On a seasonal basis, these effects are most pronounced in the weeks preceding the summer monsoon, when irrigation demand is high and natural river flow is low. Since February 2002, reservoir levels have been trending downward . In January 2004 the Reservoir dropped to its lowest level in 26 years. The prior lowest year September 2 and 5, 1978 : San Carlos Reservoir had a volume of 13,500 af .

read San Carlos Apache Tribe central Arizona project water exchange May 2004 to review how the Apache Tribe had a solution to this on going problem.

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[toggle title=” Legal History of San Carlos Lake and San Carlos Apache Tribe ” height=”auto”]

The Akimel O’Odham (Pima) Indians are an agrarian people who were practicing irrigated agriculture before the Spanish arrived in North America. In the late 1700s, the Peeposh (Maricopa) Indians formed an economic and military confederation with the Pima Indians that prospered until the arrival of the Euro-Americans, who diverted the Gila and Salt Rivers away from the Confederation. Robbed of the water it needed to sustain its agriculture, the Pima and Maricopa Indians were reduced to poverty, malnutrition, and starvation.

In 1924, in an effort to rectify the loss of water, the United States Congress enacted the San Carlos Project Act, as follows:

For the purpose, first of providing water for the irrigation of lands allotted to the Pima Indians on the Gila River Reservation , Arizona, now without an adequate supply of water, and second, for the irrigation of such other lands in public or private ownership, as in the opinion of the Secretary, can be served with water impounded by said dam, without diminishing the supply necessary for said Indian land.

The San Carlos Project Act authorized construction of the Coolidge Dam and creation of the San Carlos Irrigation Project (SCIIP). The federal government purchased the land for the Coolidge Dam site from the Apache Tribe. Consequently, the dam sits on federal property, but lies within the confines of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Prior to inundation of the Lake in 1928, the lake-bed was the site of the town of “old” San Carlos where the Apache Tribe resided. Additionally, the waters impounded behind Coolidge Dam cover tribal cemeteries, graves, and archaeology sites that contain and protect human remains, private homes, a grain mill, and many other historical sites, many of which have significant spiritual and cultural meaning to the Apache Tribe.

The federal government financed the construction of the Dam by equal reimbursement from the sale of Pima Indian-owned lands (GRIC) and implementation of a repayment plan to cover private lands (SCIDD) that would be served from the waters impounded by the dam. The Coolidge Dam was built near the confluence of the San Carlos and Gila Rivers, approximately 90 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. The water flows from the Reservoir at Coolidge Dam down the Gila River for 68 miles and is diverted at the Ashurst-Hayden Diversion Dam to the Florence-Casa Grande Canal that delivers it to GRIC and SCIDD lands through a series of lateral and sublateral canals.

To secure the water supply for the SCIIP, “the United States, on its own behalf and on the behalf of the Pima and Apache Indians (Lower Valley Users),” sued irrigation districts, canal companies, individual upstream farmers, cities and towns such as Safford and Mammoth, and mining operations such as ASARCO and Phelps Dodge (Upper Valleys Users) to determine the water rights of the water users along the Upper Gila River. United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation District, 454 F.2d 219, 220 (9th Cir.1972). There is a direct relationship between water use above Coolidge Dam (above ground and pumping diversions) and the amount of water in the *869 Reservoir available for release downstream to GRIC and SCIDD.

In 1935, the court entered a consent decree commonly called the Globe Equity 59 Decree (“Globe Equity Decree” or “Gila Decree”), bringing to a close the litigation initiated by the United States in 1925 against the users on the main stem of the Gila River. “The decree recognized that the rights of the Pimas below the reservoir were ‘immemorial,’ that is, prior to all others and that the rights of the Apaches above the reservoir were prior to all others, except the Pimas. The 1935 decree sets forth the full measure, extent, and limits of the rights of all the signatory parties and their successors in interest to divert and utilize the waters of the Gila River.” Id.

The Globe Equity Decree established the right of the Pima Indians and SCIDD farmers to store water in the Reservoir, as follows:

The right, as of the date of priority of not later than June 7, 1924,–and for the purposes of this decree and for them only as of said date -to store the waters of the Gila River in the San Carlos Reservoir of the aforesaid San Carlos Project … and the right in that relation to accomplish and control the release from said reservoir of the waters so stored and thus reduced to ownership, and to conduct the same down the channel of the Gila River to the Ashurst-Hayden and Sacaton diversion dams of the San Carlos Project and there to recapture and divert and control the diversion of the same by means of said dams for conveyance in the canals leading therefrom to the above described 100,546 acres of the lands of said Project for the reclamation and irrigation thereof, and for the supplementation of amounts available therefore at said dams from the natural stream flow under plaintiff’s rights ….

(Decree at Article VI(5).)

Accordingly, Coolidge Dam is operated by BIA to serve as an agricultural water storage facility, with no legislative intent for the facility to serve flood control, recreation, or fish and wildlife functions. The purpose of the dam is to provide irrigation water through the SCIIP to approximately 50,000 acres of Pima Indian land (GRIC) and 50,000 acres of private non-Indian land (SCIDD). Under the Globe Equity Decree, a Gila Water Commissioner is charged to “run the river” (SCIIP). He operates a “call system” which determines how much surface water each party to the Decree may use on any particular day, which determines whether water is to be stored in or released from the Reservoir.

Since 1935 when the district court approved the Globe Equity Consent Decree, its meaning has been the subject of repeated litigation: United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 117 F.3d 425 (9th Cir.1997); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 31 F.3d 1428 (9th Cir.1994); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 961 F.2d 1432 (9th Cir.1992); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 959 F.2d 242 (9th Cir.1992) (unpublished); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 454 F.2d 219 (9th Cir.1972); Gila Valley Irrigation Dist. v. United States, 118 F.2d 507 (9th Cir.1941); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 804 F.Supp. 1 (D.Ariz.1992); United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation Dist., 920 F.Supp. 1444 (D.Ariz.1941). Currently, the Globe Equity Decree is being overseen, interpreted, and enforced by the United States District Court for the District of Arizona, the Honorable John C. Coughenour, sitting by designation from the Western District of Washington.

*870 Under the Globe Equity Decree, the water in the lake is owned by the BIA for the benefit of the SCIIP, the Pima Indians, and SCIDD. Consequently, in 1979, before the Apache Tribe could operate the San Carlos Lake as a fishing and camping recreational facility, the BIA had to agree to a Grant of Concession, which it did for a ten-year period. The Grant of Concession was extended to October 24, 1999, and since then the Apache Tribe has operated the Lake without the Grant of Concession.

Under the Globe Equity Decree, neither the Apache Tribe, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation, nor any individual Apache Indians have any right to store water in the Reservoir. United States v. Gila Valley Irrigation District, 31 F.3d 1428, 1431 (9th Cir.1994). Consequently, in 1992, Congress had to enact Pub.L. 102-575, the San Carlos Apache Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 1992, to allow the Apache Tribe to store water in the Reservoir. Congress provided for the Apache Tribe to exchange Central Arizona Project (CAP) water allocations [FN7] in place of irrigation water releases from the Reservoir and granted the Apache Tribe permission to store the “exchanged” reserves in the Reservoir to maintain a permanent pool of water for fish, wildlife, recreation and other purposes. Pub.L. 102-575 at § 3704(e). The San Carlos Apache Water Rights Settlement Act became effective in 1999, establishing permanent water storage rights in the Reservoir for the Apache Tribe.

Congress enacted the San Carlos Apache Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 1992, Public Law 102-575, pursuant to a settlement agreement in General Adjudication of the Gila River System and Source, which litigated water rights claims between the Apache Tribe and non-Indian communities. Pub.L. 102-575 at § 3702. The Act approved, ratified, and confirmed the Agreement and authorized and directed the Secretary of the Interior to execute and perform the Agreement, id., which involved the annual reassignment to the Apache Tribe of CAP water apportionments previously held by the Ak-Chin Indian Reservation (22,000-33,000 acre-feet of water), Phelps Dodge Corporation (14,655 acre-feet of water) and Globe (3,480 acre-feet of water) to the Apache Tribe. Id. at § 3702. In combination with the Apache Tribe’s 1981 CAP apportionment of 12,700 acre- feet of water, the Apache Tribe has approximately 52,838 to 63,838 acre- feet of water available to it, annually, to store in the San Carlos Reservoir.

Sited from: National Indian Law Library 272 F.Supp.2d 860 No. CV 99-255 TUC DCB.July 9, 2003
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San Carlos Drought Photo Mark Henle AZCentral  Animated

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Farmers cut off from water, must use pricier sources

Article courtesy of Associated Press | January 3, 2010 | Shared as educational material only

PHOENIX – The water level on Eastern Arizona’s San Carlos Lake is so low the irrigation district that takes water from the lake for deliveries to Pinal County farmers has turned off the spigot.

As the lake empties because of persistent drought, authorities worry that thousands of fish could die.

The water level now sits at less than 5 percent of what it was a year ago and is nearing its lowest point in nearly 20 years.

In 1976 and 1977, the reservoir dried up entirely, resulting in millions of dead fish. But the water isn’t likely to completely disappear this winter unless the weather turns abruptly warm and dry.

Fishing is still permitted, but farmers were cut off Monday when the San Carlos Irrigation Project, the federal overseer of operations at the reservoir, stopped releasing water.

The move will force farmers and other users to turn to other sources, including wells and water from the Central Arizona Project canal. Both alternatives are more expensive.

The irrigation district is hoping for a good, soaking winter storm to help replenish the lake, about 25 miles east of Globe, but without extra runoff from mountain snowpack, the water will be scarce this year for farmers in Pinal County and the Gila River Reservation, the areas served by San Carlos.

“It just depends on how much water comes in,” said Doug Mason, general manager of the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District, which manages water for about 600 agricultural users. “Our allotments for next year, how much water everyone gets, will be based on how much water we get in storage,” Mason said.

As of Tuesday, the reservoir held about 9,200 acre-feet of water. As recently as Sept. 1, storage stood at nearly 37,000 acre-feet. In December 2008, the lake held more than 217,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons, the amount needed to cover 1 acre with 1 foot of water.)

The reservoir’s original capacity was 1.2 million acre-feet, although it has rarely neared that level.

As the lake level drops, the threat to fish grows.

Less water means less food and oxygen available for the largemouth bass, black crappie and other species.

“It’s like having too many fish in an aquarium,” said Kirk Young, fisheries chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “After a while, there’s just not enough oxygen in the water to sustain life.”

The tribe worked with state and federal officials several years ago to create a minimum level of water, known as the minimum pool, to protect the fish. But that pool shrinks with the reservoir, mostly because of evaporation.

The minimum pool is now about 2,500 acre-feet.

Clarence Begay, irrigation manager for the San Carlos Irrigation Project, said the decision to halt water deliveries was an attempt to protect the minimum pool.

“We’ll be monitoring inflows in hopes that we’ll receive more water,” he said.

Sweeping up the fish and moving them to another reservoir is not an option, said Young, the state fisheries chief.

Disease and other pathogens, as well as concerns about invasive species, make relocation too risky.

“The number of fish we could move wouldn’t contribute enough to make it worth the effort,” he said. “It would risk the healthy waters.”

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To save fish, officials halt water releases

Article courtesy of Shaun McKinnon | January 2, 2010 | The Arizona Republic | Shared as educational material only

San Carlos Lake is nearly empty, the water levels behind Coolidge Dam so low that federal officials have shut off deliveries to downstream farmers in an attempt to avert massive fish deaths.

Dry conditions last year reduced the incoming flow from the Gila and San Carlos rivers and kept demand high from the farmers who rely on the reservoir, about 25 miles east of Globe.

The water stored now sits at less than 5 percent of what it was a year ago and is nearing its lowest point in nearly 20 years.

The reservoir has dried up entirely in the past, most recently in 1976 and 1977, resulting in millions of dead fish. But the water isn’t likely to completely disappear this winter unless the weather turns abruptly warm and dry.

The critically low water levels at San Carlos are further evidence that Arizona’s drought worsened in the past year. The dry conditions are forcing farmers to spend more for water or cut back on the crops they grow. The dwindling water also will disrupt a popular fishery that draws tourist dollars to local businesses.

Fishing is still permitted, but farmers were cut off Monday when the San Carlos Irrigation Project, the federal overseer of operations at the reservoir, stopped releasing water. That will force users to turn to other sources, including wells and water from the Central Arizona Project Canal. Both sources are more expensive.

A wet winter could help the lake begin to recover by spring, but without extra runoff from mountain snowpack, the water will be scarce this year for farmers in Pinal County and on the Gila River Reservation, the areas served by San Carlos.

“It just depends on how much water comes in,” said Doug Mason, general manager of the San Carlos Irrigation and Drainage District, which manages water for about 600 agricultural users. “Our allotments for next year, how much water everyone gets, will be based on how much water we get in storage.”

The reservoir serves farmers across 100,000 acres, split almost evenly between the irrigation district, whose members farm land mostly in Pinal County, and the Gila River Indian Community.

Water levels have fallen steadily through the fall, the pace quickened by a one-two punch from a persistent drought: lower incoming flows and steady demand from water users.

As of Tuesday, the reservoir held about 9,200 acre-feet of water. As recently as Sept. 1, storage stood at nearly 37,000 acre-feet. In December 2008, the lake held more than 217,000 acre-feet. (An acre-foot is 325,851 gallons, the amount needed to cover 1 acre with 1 foot of water).

The reservoir’s original capacity was 1.2 million acre-feet, although it has rarely neared that level.

The threat to the fish population grew as the reservoir level fell. Less water means less food and oxygen available for the largemouth bass, black crappie and other species that make San Carlos a popular destination for anglers.

“It’s like having too many fish in an aquarium,” said Kirk Young, fisheries chief for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “After awhile, there’s just not enough oxygen in the water to sustain life.”

The state agency does not regulate San Carlos Lake. The fishery is managed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which temporarily lifted catch limits to allow anglers to take more fish.

The tribe worked with state and federal officials several years ago to create a minimum level of water, known as the minimum pool, to protect the fish. But that pool shrinks with the reservoir, mostly because it is subject to rules that account for evaporation of the water.

The minimum pool is now about 2,500 acre-feet, about one-tenth of what it was a decade ago. With so little water available, allowing the lake to shrink to that minimum level probably would result in fish deaths, which is one reason federal officials shut off releases when they did.

Clarence Begay, irrigation manager for the San Carlos Irrigation Project, said the decision to halt water deliveries was an attempt to protect the minimum pool.

“We’ll be monitoring inflows in hopes that we’ll receive more water,” he said.

A strong storm could help stabilize losses if enough rain fell at lower elevations, but most of the water that helps fill San Carlos comes from melted snow on the upper Gila River.

This is far from the first time San Carlos Lake has reached such low levels. Built in the late 1920s by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the reservoir emptied regularly in its early years, draining many times during the 1940s and 1950s.

It even filled slowly. At the dedication of Coolidge Dam in 1930, humorist Will Rogers told Calvin Coolidge, the dam’s namesake and, by then, former president, “If this were my dam, I’d mow it.”

The last time the reservoir emptied, in 1976 and 1977, about 5 million fish died. The lake nearly dried up in 1990 before a string of wet years refilled it.

Moving the fish to another reservoir is not an option, said Young, the state fisheries chief. Disease and other pathogens, as well as concerns about invasive species, make relocation too risky.

“The number of fish we could move wouldn’t contribute enough to make it worth the effort,” he said. “It would risk the healthy waters.”

But Young said the San Carlos fish have proved themselves resilient in the past. “It’s rare to see a total loss of all the fish in the lake,” he said. “The ones that survive respond well when water comes back. This has been a fact of life historically, and San Carlos Lake continues to be a great fishery.”

Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/01/02/20100102drought-sancarlos1230.html#ixzz28vS8rVCJ

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Babbitt pledges $300,000 to help San Carlos Lake:

Article courtesy of Associated Press | Aug. 07, 1997 | Shared as educational material only

The price sought for water to help save a shrinking Arizona lake already was a bargain, a Central Arizona Project executive said when asked for an additional discount.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt agreed yesterday to earmark $300,000 to pay for substitute water to keep San Carlos Lake from being dried up by irrigation needs but said that was all the law allowed him to set aside for that purpose. However, not only would that deplete the fund so no other drought relief money would be available, but the sum also would cover the cost of only about 7,700 of the 18,000 acre-feet needed, unless the Central Arizona Water Conservancy District cut its price of $36 per acre-foot, Babbitt said.

In order to get the necessary amount of water, Babbitt proposed that the district cut the price to $21 per acre-foot, which is enough water to meet the needs of a family of five for a year. Even then, other sources would have to come up with an additional $78,000, Babbitt said.

However, Sid Wilson, CAP general manager, said the normal price is $67 per acre-foot and that “the $36 is already a subsidized price.”

“We’re willing to help out,” Wilson said. ”All we’re asking for is the amount necessary to cover our incremental energy cost and a contribution toward fixed (operation and maintenance) costs.”The CAP aqueduct brings Colorado River water to central and southern Arizona, and the district oversees its operation. The lake is managed by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., who spearheaded the Arizona congressional delegation’s plea for immediate help, had asked Babbitt for $1 million. He called Babbitt’s offer “a partial victory” and said ”the most important thing now is to start the (substitute) water flowing.” The lake on the Gila River about 90 miles east of Phoenix serves irrigation needs for downstream farms, including those of the Gila River Indian Community. The San Carlos Apache Tribe stocked the lake with bass and catfish to draw tourist revenue to its reservation, which has a 62 percent unemployment rate.

The reservoir also is home to two nesting pairs of bald eagles and supports other jeopardized species, including the snowy egret and Yuma clapper rail. But its water has been dwindling at a rate of about a foot a day. If it gets low enough, its fish will die, crops will be imperiled and the wildlife it supports will lose their food supply.

Babbitt had said he was willing to commit the full $300,000 so long as Congress is willing to restore these funds during the next budget cycle, and so long as state and local interests also step forward with commitments to help.” Wilson said the lake contains about 80,000-acre feet of water now, down from 200,000 acre-feet in late May, and is shrinking by 1,700 acre-feet a day.
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We wish to thank the following people and organizations that have contributed to this fact and history educational article on the San Carlos Lake:

The University of ArizonaSan Carlos Apache TribeLee AllenNational Indian Law LibraryShaun McKinnonArizona RepublicAssociated PressWikipedia.

 

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