Record Heat Waves And Droughts Can’t Dry Up This Native Garden In Phoenix

Their descendants, some of whom still reside along the Salt and Gila rivers, are a part of a living history that is still celebrated centuries after Phoenix eventually emerged as the fifth-largest city in the U.S., in part thanks to the Huhugam’s creation of North America’s largest irrigation system at the time.

“These waterways not only provided water for as many as 50,000 people at one point in time, but also laid the groundwork for SRP’s canal system, which follows many of the same paths today,” says Patty Likens, a spokesperson for SRP. “Today, SRP and residents of the Valley can thank Indigenous people for the success of a water system that serves one of the nation’s largest metro areas.”

The Salt River Project supervises 131 out of the estimated 180 miles of active canals in Phoenix today, which are connected to the SRP’s Salt and Verde River watersheds. The parched Colorado River can suffer from four to five times more evaporative losses due to rising temperatures and climate change, as compared to the Salt River Project’s separate water supply.

The Bureau of Reclamation’s August announcement reducing Arizona’s water usage by 800,000 acre-feet from the Colorado River Basin bears little weight on SRP, which has “not experienced any delivery disruptions as a result of extreme weather” or forecasted reductions.

The provider maintains a close partnership with the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community and Gila River Indian Community, all of which reside in the surrounding Phoenix metro area and rely on their water services for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses by residents.

However, the Central Arizona Project (CAP), the state’s sole supplier of Colorado River water that flows through its 336-mile industrial canal to Phoenix, is already dealing with those cuts now.

About 80% of the state’s population resides in the city’s surrounding Maricopa and Pima counties, which primarily rely on the Colorado River, says CAP representative DeEtte Person.

They supply 36% of Arizona’s water from the Colorado River alone. Lake Mead’s tier-one shortage has caused CAP to offer only 30% of its supply to agriculture for the remainder of this year. Its entire supply “will be eliminated” for central Arizona agriculture by next year.

“It doesn’t make it any less painful. It’s just that it wasn’t unexpected,” Person says, adding that farmers will turn to pumping groundwater and fallow fields ahead of next year.

David Martínez is a professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. (Photo courtesy of Arizona State University)

It’s a rippling effect that will certainly impact Indian Country, too. Nine tribal communities rely on CAP to receive 555,806 acre-feet in water, a portion of which is allocated for irrigation.

“It goes without saying that climate change impacts us all,” says Martínez, “which means that what the state of Arizona and the city of Phoenix does or does not do to address climate change has implications for Indigenous nations. It’s typically at a time of crisis when competing entities, such as cities and states, want to suspend the rules at the expense of smaller, less powerful entities, such as tribes.”

These communities have fought for water, and continue to fight for it today. Water rights, also known as Winter’s rights originating from the Winters Doctrine in 1908, legitimized tribal claims to water access, both on the reservations and in urban spaces. Current shortages as well as expected water cuts may disproportionately affect tribal and ancestral lands, which is troubling to Martínez.

“The Americans that settled the Gila and Salt river valleys, which we call the Akimel and Onk Akimel, took control of the canals left by our ancestors, our Huhugam,” Martínez says. “Places like Phoenix need to do more than simply honor the Huhugam, which they may limit to a land acknowledgment, recognition day or a piece of public art.”

The Phoenix government hasn’t offered an official land acknowledgment since the city’s incorporation in 1881, thus clashing with and actively undermining their past and present contributions in the Valley of the Sun.

Instead, he says, the city should acknowledge the Akimel O’odham peoples as an equally valued partner helping determine “the future of this land, be it economically, environmentally, politically and culturally.”

An Urban Partnership of Recognition and Respect

It was a decade ago when Keep Phoenix Beautiful President and CEO Tom Waldeck asked Native Health of Phoenix to help transform the remnants of a residential school into a flourishing community garden.

The 15-acre lot on the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road, which once housed Phoenix Indian School’s hospital, would later become a healing space through a cooperative community garden between Keep Phoenix Beautiful and Native Health of Phoenix. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

“Native Health really got involved when they moved in across the street, and their offices looked right down on it,” Waldeck tells Next City. “They invested quite heavily on the property and it was tough for them to lose it as well.”

Founded in 1891 through an act of Congress, the 160-acre Phoenix Indian School was the only non-reservation school controlled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the state of Arizona, and closed its doors in 1990.

“It’s tempting to prevent blight, make empty lots active and useful to the community,” Native Health’s CEO Walter Murillo tells Next City. “The Phoenix Indian School was of particular interest to us.”

Little girls pray in nightgowns by the bedside while attending the Phoenix Indian School.(Photo courtesy of National Archives)

“Those old grounds were where the garden was going on,” says Murillo, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. “We wanted to sort of honor the land and those people that have been there as part of the school but also have an appreciation of the area we’re in.”

Murillo, a former president of the National Council of Urban Indian Health, saw the potential of a mutually beneficial partnership built on respect. He soon put his engineering background to use on the project, digging canals by hand on a 15-acre corner lot, which once housed the school’s hospital.

“It’s farming, it’s labor. It wasn’t gonna be glamorous,” Murillo says. “We are out there some days irrigating waist deep into the mud when we’re just trying to set up the rows to do the planting.”

The Department of Interior eventually reclaimed the property from Barron Collier, a Florida-based real estate developer that failed to uphold the stipulations of a federal land exchange. That same company also signed a temporary lease, allowing Keep Phoenix Beautiful to plant in the first place. A complicated legal situation left the urban garden caught in the middle, abruptly displacing their partnership until they relocated their operations to West Pierson Street in 2017.

Today, that same lot sits empty once again. Despite a short-term setback, combining health and nutrition into their day-to-day holistic programming came naturally to Native Health and has since remained, even after the unexpected move.

“It was just a match. Once we opened that door, we found that it actually meshed very well with what we do,” Murillo says. “And it’s not just about food.”

“Urban Indian programs, even in the whole Indian Health System, have always been about prevention and health maintenance,” he says. “Social determinants have always been a natural part of what we do as health providers and fitting that into the culture.”

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