On Friday, the Gila River Indian Community, whose land is in what’s now Arizona, made historical past — breaking floor on the primary solar-panel-lined water canal venture within the US.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to show that not just the Gila River Indian Community, but that a tribal nation can lead in water conservation and in generating green energy,” Stephen Lewis, governor of the Gila River Indian Community, advised The Independent after breaking floor on the venture.
Thousands of years of Gila River stewardship and a long time of water rights activism got here to a head because the Gila River Indian Community grew to become the primary within the western hemisphere and the second on Earth to start development on a solar-panel-lined water canal.
On the floor, this venture is a breakthrough for inexperienced infrastructure within the US. The photo voltaic panel coverings will cut back water evaporation, whereas the water within the canals will cool the panels and make them extra environment friendly in producing power.
But the leaders of this venture additionally say it’s additionally a serious win for Indigenous sovereignty and water rights enlargement, and presents an enlargement of federal authorities help for inexperienced power tasks.
Learning From History
“[This project] reinforces and strengthens our ongoing connection to the Gila River,” Mr Lewis mentioned. “This solar-covered canal project is part of that legacy.”
That legacy stretches again hundreds of years.
The Gila River Indian Community have been stewards of the Gila River for millennia. The Huhugam individuals — a group shaped after individuals from central Mexico joined historical communities residing alongside the Gila River in 300 BCE, changing into the ancestors of the Akimel O’otham, one of many tribes that makes up the Gila River Indian Community as we speak — have been skilled farmers and constructed about 500 miles of canals fed by the Gila River.
The Akimel O’otham, often known as the Pima, welcomed the Maricopa tribe — who name themselves the Pee-Posh — within the 1840s, simply a long time earlier than their collective entry to the Gila River water can be interrupted by colonizers.
In the 1870s and Eighties, dams and upstream diversion constructions constructed by non-Native farmers minimize off the Akimel O’otham and Pee Posh peoples’ entry to the river, which the Gila Indian River Community’s web site calls their “lifeblood.”
“But, we proved resilient and eked out a marginal existence for several precarious decades,” the “History” page on the Gila Indian River Community’s website reads. “Conditions finally began to improve in the 1930s, when the U.S. government completed Coolidge Dam on the upper Gila River, creating the San Carlos Reservoir.
This new project represents continued innovation and stewardship of the Gila River, Mr Lewis said.
“I feel a sacred responsibility to make sure that our water rights are protected,” Mr Lewis told The Independent.
His father, Rodney Lewis, was the former governor of the Gila River Indian Community and inspired his son tremendously.
Rodney Lewis was the first Native American to pass the Bar Exam in Arizona, and the first Native American attorney to appear before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing his case (which he won) in front of Justice Thurgood Marshall. He was also the first Native American to serve on the board that oversees nearly half of Arizona’s Colorado River allocation, The Arizona Republic reported in their 2018 obituary.
“He fought to regain our water,” Mr Lewis said of his father.
“The torch was really passed to me from him and from our past leaders when I became governor,” Mr Lewis continued.
The project also presents a solution to the conflict between preserving Gila River Indian Community land and constructing solar panels for energy generation. Solar panel farms occupy large swaths of land, David DeJong, director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project and one of the leaders on this project, said. Building the panels on top of existing infrastructure allows the community to leave precious land undisturbed while still generating green energy.
“This fits with their values of being good stewards of the land, protecting the land and developing renewable energy sources to reduce the carbon footprint for not just the community but beyond,” Mr DeJong told The Independent.
“The tribal members rightfully see land as sacred,” Mr DeJong said. “If you can put solar over an existing facility, there’s no net effect of taking additional land out of production.”
Federal Resources Expanded
Planning and advocacy for this project began with the Gila River Indian Community seeking to partner with federal agencies for funding and resources.
One of the agencies Gila River Indian Community leaders approached was the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), an organization currently overseen by Michael Connor, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works.
But at the time, the US Army Corps of Engineers primarily focused on helping tribes with flood prevention and ecosystem restoration, according to USACE Tribal Liaison for the Los Angeles District Danielle Storey. Assisting with the construction of a solar-covered canal would have been out of the organization’s typical scope, Ms Storey told The Independent.
But that all changed when Mr Connor issued a memo in 2022 explaining he would expand approval of USACE projects to assist with “innovative, climate-resilient infrastructure.” Mr Connor’s decision to expand the scope of approved projections came, in part, thanks to the Gila River Indian Community approaching the USACE about their project, Ms Storey said.
After assisting the Gila River Indian Community with the planning stage of the project, the USACE signed an agreement last month to partner with the community to begin construction on the canal.
The construction has two phases, Mr DeJong told The Independent. The first phase will be overseen by the USACE and is expected to break ground in the coming months.
“Once the USACE finishes building it, we turn it over to the tribe and it’s theirs to own for the life of the project,” Ms Storey told The Independent.
The second part, which broke floor on Friday morning, will likely be a 15-mile-long solar-panel lined canal. The Gila River Indian Community will undertake the development, Mr Lewis mentioned.
The venture is funded, partly, by a $5.56 million allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau of Reclamation additionally assisted with feasibility research within the starting stage of the venture.
“We look forward to working with the Gila River Indian Community on this novel idea to conserve water and generate renewable energy with funding from President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Touton mentioned in a 8 December press launch.
The Gila River Indian Community are the second individuals on the planet to interrupt floor on a venture like this. The first to take action was the India-based engineering agency Sun Edison. In 2012, they constructed the world’s first solar-covered canal on a big irrigation venture in India’s Gujarat state.
The agency initially deliberate to cowl 11,800 miles (19,000 kilometers) of canals. However, solely a handful of small tasks ever went up earlier than the group filed for chapter, the Associated Press stories.
Solar AquaGrid, a venture improvement agency based mostly in California, can be looking for to assemble a solar-covered canal. Titled Project Nexus, the agency introduced their plans in 2022 however they don’t plan to interrupt floor till spring of 2024, a spokesperson for the group advised The Independent.
Mr Lewis mentioned he’s proud that the Gila River Indian Community might be trailblazers of inexperienced power and water conservation.
“It’s the community that is stepping up here,” he mentioned. “We’re trying to show best practices, and breaking ground was a historic first step in that direction.”