Decades in the making, a Navajo-Hopi water rights settlement faces grassroots opposition, as tribe members fear the proposed settlement gives away too much and promises too little.
By Brett Walton
Circle of Blue
Today, Arizona’s U.S. senators will meet behind closed doors with the president of the Navajo Nation and members of the Navajo Nation Council to rally support for a water rights settlement that the senators introduced in Congress in February.
At a Quality Inn on reservation lands just east of Grand Canyon National Park, Republicans John Kyl and John McCain will face a Navajo leadership that is divided about the merits of Senate Bill 2109, also known as the “Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act,” which Kyl has promised to push through Congress before he leaves office next year. The former water attorney will not run for re-election, and he has made the settlement a central focus of his final legislative session.
“I believe this bill represents the best opportunity for all of the parties and for the American tax payer to achieve a fair result.”
— U.S. Senator John Kyl
The proposed settlement would allocate $US 199 million for the construction of three projects to supply groundwater to the Navajo and Hopi reservations in northeastern Arizona. In exchange, the tribes would waive future claims to the Little Colorado River. Access to 7.9 million cubic meters (6,411 acre-feet) of water from the Central Arizona Project would be granted, if the lease were extended for both a coal-fired power plant and its supply mine, which is located on tribal land.
“I believe this bill represents the best opportunity for all of the parties and for the American tax payer to achieve a fair result,” Kyl said, when he introduced the bill in the Senate. “The settlement resolves significant legal claims, limits legal exposure, avoids protracted litigation costs, and, most importantly, saves lives.”
Navajo President Ben Shelly lauded the proposal, saying in a statement that it “creates opportunity for more of our Navajo people to gain access to safe and reliable water sources.”
The Indian Health Service estimates that 7,850 Navajo homes lack access to safe drinking water or basic sanitation.
Kyl’s 157-page bill is vastly different from one that Navajo leaders envisioned less than two years ago. In November 2010, the Navajo council passed an agreement that would have given the tribe 38.2 million cubic meters (31,000 acre-feet) from the Colorado River and as much as 197.4 million cubic meters (160,000 acre-feet) from the Little Colorado. More important for the Nation, three pipelines would have delivered the water across the reservations.
But last year Kyl quashed that proposal, claiming the estimated $US 800 million price tag was too high to garner support in Congress.
Ed Becenti has lived on the Navajo reservation for all of his 57 years. He says the council is listening to the voices of the people, but the executive branch is not. This morning, he will drive three hours from his home in Window Rock, near the New Mexico border, to join a demonstration outside the senators’ closed meeting in Tuba City.
“It’s hardly an Indian water rights settlement. It provides greater benefits to non-Indian members.”
— Ben Nuvamsa
Former Hopi Chairman
As it stands now, Becenti would not support the proposed settlement. “We need to put this bill on hold and study it,” he said in a phone interview with Circle of Blue. “There are good things in the bill, but there are a lot of items that need to be straightened out.”
A former Hopi leader has sharper criticism for some of the bill’s provisions.
“It’s blackmail,” Ben Nuvamsa told Circle of Blue. Nuvamsa, a former chairman of the Hopi tribe, was referring to the clause that ties access to water from the Central Arizona Project to a 32-year lease extension for the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, which produces most of the power to lift Arizona’s share of the Colorado River some 915 meters (3,000 ft) and send it 540 kilometers (336 miles) to Tucson.
The coal for the plant comes from the Navajo and Hopi reservations, and the proposed settlement gives the mining company Peabody Energy the right to dig up as much of the black stuff as is necessary to run the plant through 2044.
“Corporate interests and the U.S. government are taking water and coal from us to provide cheap electricity to people in Arizona and California,” Nuvamsa said. “We’re losing our economic sovereignty because the settlement leaves out the ability of both tribes to negotiate contracts, and it gives the power plant a water right.”
“It’s hardly an Indian water rights settlement,” he continued, talking about the bill as a whole. “It provides greater benefits to non-Indian members.”
Now, both the Navajo and the Hopi councils are beginning an assessment period. In order for the settlement to be made final, both councils must pass their own versions of the legislation that Congress is considering. Neither council has even introduced legislation yet. Each is holding a series of public meetings this month to listen to tribal members, and the Navajo council will ask Kyl and McCain to hold a second meeting that is open to the public.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton