Navajo lawmakers table proposed water settlement

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) October 2010

A vote on settling the Navajo Nation’s water rights in the lower Colorado River basin will have to wait for another day.

The Tribal Council recently tabled a bill that would have given the tribe 31,000 acre-feet of water a year from the Colorado River, the unappropriated surface flows from the Little Colorado River and nearly unlimited access to two aquifers beneath the reservation. Lawmakers wanted to allow for public hearings and more debate among themselves. They’re expected to take up the measure again in the next two weeks.

“Time is not an ally, but the sky is not falling, and the settlement is not coming to an end,” said Navajo water rights attorney Stanley Pollack. “People are interested in finding out more about it, and finding out more about a deal this important is a good thing.”

Dozens of settlement opponents marched to the council chambers in Window Rock last week. They say the proposal falls short of what Navajos deserve as an indigenous nation and they aren’t convinced enough time has been allotted for public discussion.

“It’s not fair to an elder to say, ‘Agree to this’ when you don’t fully inform them, when you don’t draw a picture so they can understand - in seven days or in any time this past month,” said Marshall Johnson of Black Mesa.

The candidates for tribal president - Lynda Lovejoy and Ben Shelly - want a vote on the settlement postponed until one of them takes office next year, along with a new set of lawmakers.

The proposed settlement is the result of more than a decade of negotiations among the state, the Navajo and Hopi tribes, ranches, cities, the state’s major water providers and others.

Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, said that if Navajo lawmakers don’t act on the settlement soon, “my sense is that this opportunity will have passed.”

“The public needs to be aware of this, but it also needs to be aware this is an extremely complex technical and legal issue,” Guenther said. “We’ve been tested for many years trying to get everybody on board. This enables everyone to at least sign off on the main, key issues.”

The settlement would end a lawsuit the Navajo Nation filed against the U.S. Department of Interior in 2003 asserting rights to water from the Colorado River. A 1922 river compact recognizes tribal water rights, but the potentially huge claims are not quantified.

The Navajo and Hopi tribes also are party to a separate lawsuit concerning water rights to the Little Colorado River.

The settlement’s enactment ultimately hinges on approval from Congress and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for pipelines that would deliver water to western Navajo communities.

The settlement also requires approval from Arizona and the Hopi Tribe, whose water rights are included in the settlement. The Hopi Tribe hasn’t set a date to consider the settlement, but the tribal chairman said the proposal would be subject to public hearings.