Restoring ancient aquifers to secure water for the future within the Gila River Indian Community

By: Sharla Strong, ASU Food Systems graduate student. 

As sustainability and food systems students, it is inspiring to witness successful environmental projects and a privilege to learn from indigenous people. Over Fall term, our class of graduate students with the ASU Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems had been learning about managing natural resources. Now we were on a Food and Farm Tour of Arizona, visiting different types of farms, ranches, and orchards while learning about different aspects of our food system.

Visiting the Gila River Indian Community’s MAR5 site was a personal highlight for me because it demonstrated the intersection between history, environment, social wellbeing, food and indigenous rights. It was especially an honor to be hosted in the week leading up to the annual Water Rights Day Celebration, which marks the anniversary of the Arizona Water Settlement Act of 2004 signed by President George W. Bush, recognizing the over 2,000 year old water claim of Gila River Indian Community. 

It was this water settlement that has made projects such as the MAR5 site possible. The MAR5 site is the 5th Managed Aquifer Recharge site that the tribal government has constructed within the reservation. Managed Aquifer Recharge is also referred to as “water banking” and has been found to benefit areas where groundwater has been depleted (Luxem, 2017). By restoring water underground, aquifers are “recharged” to improve water levels for wells which are used by households across the reservation. 

Leading the efforts of the MAR projects is the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project (P-MIP), whose mission is to develop and construct a water delivery system for the beneficial use of Community water resources. P-MIP is planning, designing, and constructing a water delivery system that will enable the Community to use its settlement and existing water resources to irrigate a system of approximately 95,000 acres.

Our class heard presentations by Yolanda Elias, an elder and basket weaver; Kristina Morago, the P-MIP Public Involvement Specialist; and David De Jong, the Director of the P-MIP. The speakers described the impact of the MAR sites on restoring water access to the community, the history of water including upstream diversion that depleted water access within the community, and the basketry and cultural materials that have become more available due to the restoration of water to the area. 

To understand the significance of MAR5, our speakers provided historical context on how water within the community has changed over time. The Gila River Indian Community is home for members of both the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and the Pee-Posh (Maricopa) tribes. Their ancestors were master engineers, who built complex irrigation canal systems that utilized water from the monsoon rains and Gila River for growing crops. The Akimel O’odham have grown food in abundance for millennia, conducted trade over great distances, and developed a great variety of crops that were adapted to the hot desert climate and thrived from monsoon storms, including corn, beans, squash, cotton, tobacco and more. 

The great abundance that the tribes cultivated came to a sudden halt in the 1870s and 1880s, when water was cut off by construction of upstream diversion structures and dams by non-Native farmers. The farming that sustained the tribes was largely wiped out. From 1880 to 1920 or so, the tribes faced mass famine and starvation. The federal government stepped in and doled out canned and processed food by the ton. The change in diet proved disastrous, leading to extremely high rates of obesity and diabetes—a condition the community still faces today. With almost no jobs available on the reservation, and the loss of cash crops, the people faced widespread poverty (Gila River Indian Community. About: History. 2015). The 2004 water settlement and MAR sites are great achievements by the Gila River Indian Community in their long-term mission to restore the environmental, economic and social wellbeing of the community. 

The loss of water on the reservation led to changes in the landscape and loss of plants that once were abundant. One important cultural plant is called Devil’s Claw and is used to make the black designs that appear in their basketry. Also willow, which forms the structure of baskets, died off in areas of the reservation. Yolanda Elias explained that sometimes fertilizer used in today’s agricultural practices can negatively affect the quality basketry materials. By looking at the Devil’s Claw, she can tell if a plant has been exposed. She also explained that these plants occur in the wild and do not typically grow well when people have tried to plant seeds in new places like other domesticated plants.

The MAR5 site provides an incredible educational space because it involves an interpretive trail that includes signage in English, Pee-Posh and Akimel O’otham languages. When water was restored to the area, plants that had been dormant began to revive. As a cultural consultant, Yolanda Elias also worked with scientists and restoration workers to transplant different plant varieties and direct where it was culturally appropriate to place different types of plants. Yolanda also helps facilitate consultation with other elders who have knowledge of culture and traditions. She described how it is important to take care of the basketry materials and also monitor locations and assess when they are ready to be harvested. Basketry is an important cultural art form with an array of designs and the purpose of basket use ranges from ceremonial to food gathering and preparation. Yolanda does not sell her baskets, but she continues to teach and there are other O’odham artists who sell decorative baskets as professional artists. 

Kristina Morago spoke about the importance of the site to the community and how it is a healing place for people. She encouraged students to walk the interpretive trail which gives an experiential learning opportunity to understand the cultural significance and get a sense of the types of vegetation that was once common throughout the area. 

David DeJong provided technical descriptions of the project and impressive photographic demonstration of the vegetation restoration that was made possible by this project. The MAR sites also provide employment for the community due to the maintenance required to remove invasive plants and maintain cultural plant areas. The positive impact was emphasized by a tribal member in attendance who stood up and reinforced the importance of MAR5 to the community and on many different levels. Some people use the interpretive trail as a place to exercise or take their families, while others use it for harvesting indigenous foods or cultural materials for baskets and other traditional arts. 

Healing waterways within the reservation requires incredible commitment and long term planning. With the vision of the Gila River one-day flowing again, it is an incredible experience to be able to listen to the rush of water at MAR5, a sound that is cherished by the Gila River Indian Community. 

Thank you to Yolanda Elias, Kristina Morago, David DeJong and the people of the Gila River Indian Community for your generosity and hosting our class. 


Gila River Indian Community. About: History. Website dated 2015.

Luxem, Katja. Managed Aquifer Recharge. American Geosciences Institute. Factsheet 2017-006. September 2017.

This blog is part of a series from the December 2021 Arizona immersive component of the MS in Sustainable Food Systems Program. Students toured the state, meeting with farmers, ranchers, entrepreneurs, government staff, and non-profit leaders.