Gila River Indian Community moves forward with solar canal project, first in country

By: - November 13, 2023 4:28 am

Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis signed a partnership agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the Solar Canal Project, launching Phase I of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project Renewable Energy Pilot. (Photo courtesy of the Gila River Indian Community)

In an effort to address the ongoing drought affecting the Southwest, the Gila River Indian Community is taking an innovative step forward by launching its Solar Canal Project to construct the country’s first solar-over-canal project.

“A tribe is leading the way,” Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said, adding that the shovel-ready project will immediately address water conservation.

The Gila River Indian Community and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed an agreement on Thursday in Sacaton, kicking off construction on the first phase of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project Renewal Energy Pilot Project, which is expected to be completed in 2025.

“This new technology fits and supports our culture and tradition as we look forward to being sustainable in the future in a very real way,” Lewis said. The project may break new ground for the tribe, but he said it furthers their role as stewards of their water.

Lewis said they’re looking at this in terms of a Blue-Green Tribal Agricultural Economy, in which blue represents conserving water and green symbolizes renewable energy.

The GRIC has over 150 miles of canal that could ultimately be covered with solar panels, and this project could be a game changer for creating energy.

The first phase of the project involves the construction of solar panels over a portion of the GRIC’s Interstate 10 Level Top canal, according to the tribe, and the project works to conserve water and generate renewable energy for tribal irrigation facilities.

David Deyoung, the director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, said there are two ways this project can conserve water: reducing the evaporative water losses and minimizing water use for power generation. The combination, he said, will save about 200 acre-feet a year.

The project is expected to produce approximately one megawatt of renewable energy to offset energy needs and costs for tribal farmers, according to the GRIC.

The solar panels are expected to cover more than 1,000 feet of the canal as part of phase one of the project. Lewis said he hopes to launch phase two in December, which involves installing solar panels on top of more canals near Casa Blanca.

Michael Connor, the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, called the project incredibly innovative work toward clean energy and water conservation.

“The community has helped us innovate our process for working with tribes,” Conner said in a video about the signing shared on social media.

Lewis said it’s great to see all the plans come to fruition, and he believes that the Gila River Indian Community is setting new ground for other tribes to follow.

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Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror
Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.