Navajo Council approves Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - During a special session held last Friday, the 21st Navajo Nation Council approved the Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement with a vote of 51-24, a first step towards securing reserved Navajo Nation's water rights to the Lower Basin of the Colorado River and Little Colorado River systems.

Opponents, however, continue to argue that the settlement is invalid because the consents of the holders of aboriginal, treaty and other water rights were not given adequate notice of the settlement and that their free prior and informed consent was not obtained by the Navajo Nation.

As a result, the Forgotten People organization is filing a lis pendens notice with the Coconino County Clerk and Recorder.

A notice was also sent to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., urging him to veto the Council action and if passed, that he refuse to sign the agreement under the discretionary authority granted in the resolution.

The Navajo Nation's water rights are reserved water rights under the Winters Doctrine to establish a permanent homeland for the Navajo Nation.

Now, with the Council's approval, the Navajo Nation secures 31,000 acre feet per year of water from the main stem of the Lower Basin of the Colorado, unappropriated water flows from the Little Colorado River and a nearly unlimited supply of ground water from the Coconino and Navajo aquifers.

The settlement proposes to construct three separate water pipeline projects that will provide water to regions of the Navajo Nation that currently have little or no water supply.

The Western Navajo Pipeline will supply 11,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado River for the communities of LeChee, Copper Mine, Bodaway-Gap, Cameron and Tuba City and 4,000 acre feet per year for the Hopi Tribe.

The Leupp-Dilkon pipeline will supply 4,800 acre feet of water per year from the Coconino Aquifer to Leupp, Bird Springs, Tolani Lake, Teesto, Dilkon, Indian Wells, Lower Greasewood and White Cone.

Finally, the Ganado pipeline will provide 5,600 acre feet of water per year from the Coconino Aquifer to Ganado, Kinlichee, Jeddito, Cornfields, Steamboat, Klagetoh and Wide Ruins.

The settlement will also provide 6,411 acre feet of water per year to Window Rock and surrounding communities through the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, an $870 million water pipeline project of the 2005 San Juan River Water Rights Settlement between the Navajo Nation and New Mexico.

The San Juan settlement would provide water to 80,000 Navajo families on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation, including the Window Rock area. To date, Congress has appropriated $3 million to the Bureau of Reclamation for the project and $6 million to the Office of Special Trustee for the Navajo Nation Water Resources Development Trust Fund.

Most Council delegates representing Navajo communities, including those in the former Bennett Freeze Area who have to contend with limited and/or contaminated water supplies, favor the settlement.

"The water supply projects in the agreement will provide resources for community development such as addressing the Navajo Nation's highest health priorities: the construction of health care facilities, providing safe drinking water and the availability of sanitation," Delegate Thomas Walker (Bird Springs/Leupp/Tolani Lake) stated.

Walker, chair of the Health and Social Services Committee added that the approval of the water settlement will help in protecting and improving the quality of life for Navajo people. Walker also said an Indian Health Services Report released in January revealed that 61,700 homes on the Navajo Nation are in need of water.

Delegate Leonard Chee, who also represents Bird Springs, Leupp and Tolani Lake, said two of the three chapters in his precinct support the settlement. "The chapter voice guides the way the Navajo Nation Council votes," he said. "Leupp, Bird Springs and Tolani Lake will benefit the most from this settlement. Dilkon needs water and I support the water agreement as well."

Some delegates, including Hope MacDonald Lone Tree (To'nanees'Dizi), repeatedly voiced the same concerns as grassroots and non-governmental entities.

"I ... have had numerous concerns about certain language and terms of the agreement. It is wrong to connect the need for waterlines with any irreversible waiver of our water rights," MacDonald Lone Tree said. "There is no funding for these proposed pipelines ... As far as I'm concerned all the waters that flow off and within the Four Sacred Mountains is ours. We should never shortchange our future generations by leaving them no tools for survival."

MacDonald Lone Tree further disagreed with approving an agreement that may change after it leaves the Council Chamber to conform to congressional legislation.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie encouraged the Navajo people to look at the larger picture because the Navajo Nation would secure over 500,000 acre feet of water per year from the Colorado River Basin.

The agreement now goes to President Shirley's desk for review. If President Shirley approves the agreement, the settlement would still need to be approved by other parties including the Hopi Tribe, Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Salt River Project, City of Holbrook, Flying M. Ranch, Inc, among others. Once executed by all parties, the settlement will proceed to Congress for approval, which will include authorization to fund the water delivery projects that are a key component of the settlement.

"This settlement has what we call a poison pill," added Navajo water rights attorney Stanley Pollack. "If Congress does not spend money for the project, then there is no deal, and Navajo has not waived anything."

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