Public meetings focus on Navajo water rights

Farmington, New Mexico (AP) July, 2011

A proposed project that would divert hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of water from the San Juan River is the focus of a series of public meetings in northwestern New Mexico.

The first meeting on the Navajo water rights settlement was scheduled for Wednesday evening in Shiprock. More meetings were planned over the next several days in Aztec, Farmington and Bloomfield.

The settlement quantifies the Navajo Nation’s rights to water from the lower Colorado River basin in Arizona and settles claims made by the Hopi Tribe. As part of the settlement, Indian communities would have access to new pipelines carrying more than 600,000 acre-feet of water each year.

New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio said the project avoids expensive litigation, protects non-Navajo agricultural rights, prohibits the Navajo Nation from selling water out of state and will create jobs while the infrastructure is being built.

However, the San Juan County Agricultural Water Users Association is opposed to the settlement in its current form.

“We believe it will do irreparable harm to the basin,” association president Mike Sullivan said.

The group’s attorney, Victor Marshall of Albuquerque, questioned whether the state engineer would be able to stop the Navajo Nation from selling water to other states and if the river could support water users off the reservation after diverting so much water to other communities.

“There simply isn’t enough water,” Marshall said. “New Mexico’s water is being sacrificed to the Navajo Nation to fulfill federal obligations and that makes no sense.”

Lawyers from the state, the tribe and representatives from the state engineer’s office and the Bureau of Reclamation were expected to be at the meetings. The water users association planned to have more than 1,000 members attend some of the meetings.