New Mexico court upholds Navajo Nation's water rights in San Juan Basin

President Shelly says decision allows Nation to focus on water needs of residents in New Mexico

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A New Mexico appeals court said the Navajo Nation has water rights in the San Juan River Basin.

On Nov. 1, Judge James Wechsler, said that the rights were the product of a negotiated settlement the court previously determined to be "fair, reasonable and consistent with law and public policy."

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly hailed the decision as a major triumph for the Navajo Nation observing that, "water is a sacred element that is needed for life."

"This decision recognizes the Navajo rights to water from the San Juan River," Shelly said. "We can now focus on the future of water needs for our residents in New Mexico."

In 2009, Congress approved a settlement agreement between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico recognizing the water rights of the Navajo Nation in the San Juan River Basin. These rights included agricultural water for the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project and the Hogback and Fruitland projects, drinking water to be delivered to eastern Navajo communities through the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and water for livestock and other historic uses.

The Northwest New Mexico Rural Water Projects Act established a number of milestones that needed to be met for the settlement agreement to be finally effective. Under the act, entry of the final decree of Navajo Nation water rights in the San Juan River Basin was required by the end of 2013. The act also required that Congress appropriate the money necessary to build the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project and that construction be complete by the end of 2024.

The final decree by the appeals court concludes the litigation of the rights of the Navajo Nation which began in 1975. It is possible other water users who have opposed the settlement and the final decree will file an appeal.

Benjamen Cowboy, chair of the Navajo Nation Water Rights commission, said "this historic milestone could not have been achieved without the courage and foresight demonstrated by the Navajo Nation Council in approving the settlement and the persistence and tenacity of our entire water rights team as they work to ensure that the rights agreed to in the settlement become legally enforceable."

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