Gila River Indian Community partners with Army Engineers on solar-covered canal project

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The Gila River Indian Community will partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to cover one of the tribe’s canals with solar panels following a landmark agreement cemented ealier this month.

The deal sets in motion the first solar-over-canal project of its kind to begin construction in the United States, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. 

Through the partnership, the Army Corps will place photovoltaic panels over one of the tribe’s irrigation canals — the 1-10 Level Top canal — with the goal of both conserving water and generating renewable energy.

“This first pilot will break new ground and further the Community’s role as stewards of our shudag (water),” Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said in a statement.

The project, the governor continued, will occur “in keeping with the Community’s tradition of bringing innovation to irrigation systems throughout their lands”

Embracing such a tradition of conservation has bolstered the Gila River Indian Community’s extensive experience collaborating with state and federal officials on water initiatives.

After Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act in 2004, the tribe gained the single largest entitlement to water from the Central Arizona Project, a massive conduit that transports Colorado River water across Arizona.

The Community launched a strategic effort in 2010to sell a portion of its water to neighbors while also building a network of underground storage sites to maintain a stable supply at home

Over the past year, the Community’s leadership has been increasingly vocal in demanding that tribal nations gain seats at the table in ongoing renegotiations of Colorado River usage governance.

The solar-covered canal project — slated for completion in 2025 — will generate about 1 megawatt of renewable energy to offset agricultural electricity needs, according to an announcement from the Community. 

Funding for the approximately $6.44 million project will come from a federal-tribal partnership, with the tribe’s portion financed by a $517,000 grant from the Bureau of Reclamation.

The deal with the Army Corps — what’s known as a “Project Partnership Agreement” — is a legally binding contract between the federal government and a non-federal sponsor, such as a state, municipality or tribe.

“This is the type of creative thinking that can help move all of us toward a more sustainable future,” Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.

“Leveraging existing infrastructure such as the Level Top Canal to help provide sustainable, dependable energy — and to do so as part of cooperative partnership like this one — constitutes a win all around,” Buschatzke added.

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