Trailblazing tribal water-rights attorney Rod Lewis leaves an unmatched legacy of advocacy

Trailblazing tribal water-rights attorney Rod Lewis leaves an unmatched legacy of advocacy
April 12, 2018

Rodney B. “Rod” Lewis, one of the nation’s great champions of tribal water rights, passed away on Tuesday at the age of 77.

Mr. Lewis leaves behind an unparalleled legacy as a legal advocate for the interests of fellow members of the Gila River Indian Community. He was a trailblazer in the realms of tribal water and energy law, gaming compacts and as a strong voice advancing the interests of Native American tribes on a host of public policy issues.

He is survived by his wife, Willardene Pratt Lewis, and three adult children: John Blaine, Katherine Elizabeth and Stephen Roe, who is Governor of the Gila River Indian Community, and their families.

In water law in particular, Rod Lewis’s career is legendary.

As general counsel for the Gila River community, Mr. Lewis played a central role in the largest, most significant tribal water-rights settlement in U.S. history, the adjudication of tribal water rights that led directly to the Arizona Water Rights Settlement of 2004.

That landmark settlement with the federal government resulted in awards of tens of thousands of acre-feet of water for Arizona tribes. It included a water-budget award to the GRIC of 654,500 acre-feet of water annually.

The great majority of that allocation is composed of Colorado River water provided through the Central Arizona Project – rendering the GRIC the single largest recipient of water delivered through the CAP system.

The budget also includes water from the Salt River, as well as from reclaimed wells. But perhaps the most important part of the settlement is water from the tribe’s historically vital water source, the Gila River.

Of that historic settlement, Mr. Lewis said recently to an Arizona Republic reporter:

“It’s important to know that Indian tribes receive almost half of the water from the Central Arizona Project,” he said. “And I think tribes, from time to time, have felt that their interests were not being represented.”

They were represented, however, by Rod Lewis. The GRIC community’s written history of the 2004 water settlement led by Mr. Lewis attests to the centrality of the Gila River water that he helped return to his people:

“Thus, our land was a diverse area of flowing streams, riparian woodlands, desert plants, grasslands and rich farmland. This environment provided for our needs for centuries. Altering this fragile environment - through the loss of our water supply - could only lead to significant environmental and cultural change for our people.”

Mr. Lewis served in the U.S. Army, honorably discharged in 1965 as a First Lieutenant in the Army Rangers. He later earned a master’s degree in History from Arizona State University in 1969 and his law degree from UCLA in 1972.

The stellar legal career to follow would span more than four decades. Along the way, he compiled an impressive array of “firsts”: Mr. Lewis was the first Native American attorney in the State of Arizona and the first Native American attorney to successfully argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

While in his later years Mr. Lewis may have ceded the policy forefront in his family to his son, GRIC Governor Lewis, he remained a force in tribal legal affairs as a consultant with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld.

But he returned to a leadership role on water issues in March 2017 when he accepted an appointment by Governor Doug Ducey to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District board – the governing board for the CAP.

Mr. Lewis accepted that post at the same time that his son, Governor Lewis, signed a cooperative water-conservation partnership dedicated to taking action to stabilize Lake Mead, the troubled Colorado River system reservoir.

Of that appointment, Mr. Lewis demonstrated his long-standing belief that Native American tribes should not only be in the room where decisions involving them are made, but should be a part of the leadership making those decisions:

“We think any time any group meets, whether it’s the state Department of Water Resources, the CAWCD, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs -- for that matter, anything that happens between the states and the tribes, or the federal government and the tribes -- we should have a seat at the table and participate in the process.”

The Arizona Department of Water Resources has long welcomed that leadership role provided by the tribes in the cause of defining and defending Arizona’s water future.

Mr. Lewis was an able, worthy partner – and decision-maker – in helping define Arizona’s rich water legacy. He will be greatly missed.