Navajo Nation leadership attends first phase of Little Colorado River adjudication trial
MARICOPA COUNTY — A trial over water rights continues in one of the longest-running court cases in Arizona history.
The case will determine who has rights to water from the Little Colorado River basin. Thousands of claimants are involved in the trial and will likely exceed the water available.
Several Navajo Nation leaders attended Phase I of the Navajo Nation’s trial in the Little Colorado River System adjudication.
The Little Colorado River flows perennially through the northeast corner of Arizona. The basin includes most of Apache County, and Navajo and Coconino counties north of the Mogollon Rim and east of Flagstaff.
The Navajo and Hopi tribes own more than half of the land in the region, and in the absence of knowledge about the water supply, communities are unable to make adequate plans for the future. Additionally, conflicts are numerous and frequent.
The case will determine the rights and priorities of all water users, including cities, farmers, ranchers with stock ponds and homeowners with domestic wells.
In 1985, the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the United States (on behalf of the two tribes), filed claims in the Little Colorado River adjudication after the United States Supreme Court determined that water rights held in trust by the United States were subject to state court jurisdiction and the Arizona Supreme Court held that the Arizona constitution did not bar such claims.
In 1995, the Arizona legislature expressed a policy of resolving federal reserved rights, including those of Indian tribes, before adjudicating other water rights within the state.
In 2001, Judge Edward P. Ballinger determined the claims of the Hopi Tribe would proceed first in the Little Colorado River adjudication. The trial is being conducted by Special Water Master Susan Ward Harris in the Maricopa County Superior Court.
In April of 2016, the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation made additional attempts to settle their shared resources along the Little Colorado River, but those discussions stalled.
In 2019, The Hopi Tribe argued its future needs. Many tribal members have no running water in their homes. They practice dry farming, relying on rain to sustain crops in areas where runoff naturally would flow.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren, Speaker Crystalyne Curley, several members of the 25th Navajo Nation Council, and Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch were present to offer their support for the Navajo Nation’s water claims to the Little Colorado River.
Nygren made opening statements and in response to questions, he explained how important access to water was to his family, adding he didn’t see his life on the reservation as being different, but “normal.”
“My mom saved up some money and we lived in a small travel trailer, probably eight feet by twelve feet — it was pretty old and no running water, no electricity,” Nygren said as he explained his upbringing and how they used water stored outside in tanks for their everyday use that included bathing. “I just assumed the water came from the jugs outside.”
The Phase I trial is expected to last a few months with the Navajo Nation and objectors presenting many witnesses and cross examinations throughout.
Council Delegates in attendance include Resources and Development Committee Chair Brenda Jesus, Vice Chair Casey Allen Johnson and members Rickie Nez and Shawna Ann Claw. Council Delegates Vince James, Seth Damon, Cherilyn Yazzie, and Shaandiin Parrish were also present.
The hearings are overseen by a Special Water Master and can be viewed on the Maricopa County Superior Court’s website at: www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/calendar/