In addition to the treating and testing that Mesa and Chandler do at their water treatment facilities, GRIC has its own monitoring center and reserves the right to halt the water exchange should its “constituents” — an industry euphemism for fecal and other organic matter — exceed legal limits. “In 20 years, we have never shut the water off,” says DeJong. “In fact, it’s the best quality water we have outside of groundwater.”
Of course, municipal-agricultural water reuse is neither a perfect nor universally applicable solution. For one, agriculture often takes place far from population centers, making transporting municipal water logistically — and economically — challenging. But as water shortages become more severe, the cost of pumping reclaimed water looks smaller and smaller when compared to the cost of a drought-stricken harvest.
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“We are seeing a lot of interest in places we thought water supply challenges weren’t that severe,” says Patricia Sinicropi, executive director of the WateReuse Association, a trade organization that promotes water recycling across residential, industrial and agricultural uses. “The old paradigm of the farmer just putting a pipe in the ground and pumping up the water and not thinking about it, those days are over,” Sinicropi says.
Moreover, while contaminants can be thoroughly removed, stigma is more enduring. That too, advocates say, is starting to change. “Consumers don’t want to know that their strawberries are grown using purified reclaimed water, but because of water scarcity concerns … we are starting to see fights over what is really ‘liquid gold,’” says Rock. “Folks are realizing this is a valuable resource.”
Across the country, that realization has sparked a small but growing practice of agricultural water reuse. Between 2010 and 2015, total reclaimed irrigation grew 42 percent, from 472 million gallons to 669 million gallons per day, according to the US Geological Survey’s most recent water-use census.
The city of Hayden, Idaho uses its reclaimed wastewater to irrigate nearly 500 acres of public-owned farmland on which it grows alfalfa and poplar trees. Monterey County, California, currently treats its wastewater for both groundwater recharge and agricultural use, serving more than 12,000 acres of farmland. East of the Mississippi, the Water Conserv II wastewater treatment plant in Orlando, Florida provides grade A+ recycled water for use on city lawns, golf courses and citrus groves located west of the city, for less than one-fortieth the price of non-recycled irrigation water in the area. “Thousands of people that are moving to Florida yearly, if not daily, and all those households use all that potable water. So the more that we can reclaim helps to preserve that resource,” says plant manager Keith Jordan.
While Orlando’s sprawl has subsumed many of the orange groves Conserv II once serviced, Gila River’s hard geographical demarcation — and a longstanding cultural commitment to the agricultural tradition — protects its fields. Over the last 40 years, two-thirds of the agricultural land south of the Gila River reservation and over half of the land north of it have gone out of production. But for GRIC, having more neighbors in Mesa and Chandler means having a more reliable reclaimed water supply. “The fact of the matter is that people are going to wash clothes, wash dishes, and flush their toilets, day after day after day,” says DeJong. “That’s a constant water supply. Surface water is not that reliable, especially in this time of climate change, especially on the Gila River.”
Now, two simultaneous infrastructure projects — on either side of the city-reservation border — are about to make that supply even more reliable.
In 2022, after years of discussion, Mesa announced the construction of a new reclaimed water pipeline that will finally connect all three of its treatment plants to GRIC. “As we grow, there will be more water usage, which in turn creates more wastewater, which in turn creates more recycled water that we can then deliver to the Gila River Community,” says Chris Hassert, director of water resources for Mesa. The ability to send more water means the ability to receive more water, too.
The Central Mesa Reuse Pipeline, which broke ground in July, is expected to be completed in 2025. It will double the amount of treated wastewater the city sends to GRIC, from 11,000 to 22,000 acre-feet per year. And if Mesa continues to grow as projected, DeJong says, that total is expected to reach nearly 30,000 acre-feet by the end of the decade.
At the same time, the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project is hard at work expanding what the community can do with the reclaimed water it receives. In April of this year, GRIC received $83 million in federal funds allotted through the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for a new reclaimed water pipeline.
Currently, only the agricultural land close to the reservation’s northern border — just a fifth of the reservation total — is able to be served by reclaimed water. (The fields in those areas are served by a mix of reclaimed and other water sources.) The reservation’s central valley, home to dozens of growers, including the tribal entity Gila River Farms, is out of reach of the reservation’s most reliable water source. After the new reclaimed water pipeline — which will span 19.4 miles and 100 feet in elevation — is complete, that coverage will reach 95 percent.
“If we had not had a wet year this year, we would have seen a lot of farms fall right out of production,” says DeJong. “This really is a game changer.”
At the same time, the community is working to implement water conservation — and reuse — across all of its activities. This April, in addition to the funding it received for the new pipeline, GRIC also signed a $150 million agreement with the federal government to leave a large portion of its Colorado River water budget in the river, contributing up to two feet in additional storage at Lake Mead. The community is currently constructing a water reuse facility at its new Santan Mountain Casino, which opened in June; by 2025, that water too will flow to GRIC fields. And when there is funding available, DeJong says, the community wants to equip its wastewater lagoons with water treatment facilities tied into the reservation’s irrigation system. “That’s the last of the gold,” says DeJong. “They’re not making any more water.”
Even as the West faces an increasingly precarious hydrological future, Gila River agriculture is uniquely positioned to thrive. With millions of dollars of investment and hundreds of miles of irrigation projects completed and in the works, the Pima are finally — after more than a century of dispossession — reestablishing the resilient agricultural practice essential to their cultural identity. As the Phoenix metro area continues to develop and more of its fields fall out of production, DeJong only sees the role of tribal growers increasing.
“There’s a demand for the food, and somebody’s got to pick that up,” says DeJong. “The community has the know-how, it has farmers who have thousands of years of experience, it has a lot of good land, it has the infrastructure — and it has the water.”