CASA GRANDE — As Arizona moves into Tier 1 shortage status next year due to the megadrought, regional water rights will become a prominent issue, including among tribal territories.

The University of Arizona’s latest conference on water resources, Aug. 30-Sept. 1, focused on tribal water resiliency, and the three-day series was dedicated to Rodney “Rod” Lewis, a tribal attorney whose legacy was fighting to protect the primacy of water rights on tribal lands.

“Rod was an icon in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous water world,” said Water Resources Research Center Director Sharon Megdal. “He was a great leader.”

Lewis, who was the first tribal leader to practice law in Arizona, was integral to securing water rights for tribes such as the Gila River Indian Community and Tohono O’odham Nation, beginning in the 1970s. Lewis died in 2018 at age 77.

During the conference, family members, including GRIC Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, who is Rod Lewis’ son, honored Lewis with recollections and praise.

According to the speakers, Lewis was key, not just to preserving senior water rights, but to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of Native American leaders and the legal community.

“There was an informal mentorship he provided,” said John Blaine Lewis, executive director for Avant Energy and one of Rod Lewis’ sons. “He was a beacon. My father was from the Gila River Indian Community, born and raised, and in that sense that strengthened everything the community did.”

Blaine Lewis also warned tribal communities would be adversely impacted by climate change, and action is necessary to protect their environment and resources.

“It weighed heavily on my father that this will never end,” Blaine Lewis said about tribal water and environmental protection. “When issues intersect, tribes are going to be at risk. This burdens us with the responsibility to take action.”

Gov. Lewis said his father was “the strongest person I ever knew” and said he was proud to be part of the continuum of historic fights surrounding water settlements, which he called “sacred work.”

Rod Lewis’ granddaughter, Sarah Camille Chiago, also read a poem by Lewis’ wife, Willardene, entitled “The Law of the River.”

One portion of the poem reads:

“My journey to the river was always for you

And I reclaimed it just for you.

And when you reach your river

You will find me there waiting for you.”

Although not a member of the family, attorney John Echohawk, currently executive director of the Native American Rights Fund, recalled his work with Rodney Lewis and credited the late lawyer with helping use 1908 and 1963 Supreme Court decisions to affirm a “winter’s doctrine” that protected Native American rights to water within their territories.

“Rod and I knew that water was very important for the livelihood of our people,” Echohawk said. “We need to educate people about tribal water rights: They are the senior rights. So many people don’t know that.”

During the conference, “resilience” was broadly defined as being able to preserve water resources amidst climatic conditions such as Arizona’s current megadrought. Recent restoration efforts have helped turn portions of the Gila River, once the lifeblood of local Native American tribes, back into viably supporting local ecosystems.

One of the communities Rod Lewis helped secure water settlements for was the Ak-Chin Indian Community, and during the conference, Council Member Lisa Garcia detailed how the tribe’s fight to maintain water rights persists to this day.

Garcia began by noting that in 1912, the Ak-Chin community was awarded 47,000 acres, which was shrunk six months later to less than half that total.

According to Garcia, a leasing program run by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs drained the local aquifer from 40 feet to 400 feet below ground level mid-century, until the tribe established a farm enterprise in 1961 and stopped renewing any non-Indian leases.

In 1977, the tribe filed a lawsuit and became the first tribe in Arizona to receive a water settlement a year later.

Garcia said that currently, Ak-Chin is one of the largest farming communities in the country, and the farming methods employ stringent conservation methods such as sprinkler irrigation systems.

“Water is sacred,” Garcia said. “Water is life. Tribes must be part of the solution and have a seat at the table.”

Megdal announced the creation of the Rodney Blaine Lewis Scholars’ Award to honor his legacy, to support graduate students who are enrolled members of an Arizona Indian tribe and are enrolled in a program of study in water law, policy or a related field.

The university will be establishing an endowment to support the award in the near future.

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.