Much heat, a little light at Piñon meeting

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

PIÑON, Ariz, April 26, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Diedra Peaches speaks at the water forum in Ganado on April 19.

BOTTOM: A citizen speaks April 19 at the water forum in Ganado Chapter House.

President Ben Shelly continued his effort to educate the public about the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement with a town hall meeting April 18 at the Piñon Chapter House.

As was true for the first such meeting, held April 17 in Tuba City, a big crowd came to watch the PowerPoint presentation conducted by Ray Gilmore and Leo Manheimer of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, followed by a question and answer session that gave 18 people two minutes each to speak.

Over 200 people attended, but as building occupancy codes capped the number at 150, a constant train of citizens waited in the parking lot and listened to the proceedings over loudspeakers. In some cases they waited well over an hour for someone to leave the chapter house and open up a space inside.


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Shelly gave opening remarks and read from a prepared speech after the PowerPoint, urging everyone to listen carefully and not agree too fast.

During the prepared speech he said the agreement will bring needed drinking water to reservation communities and that even if rivers run dry there will be enough water because of ample groundwater supplies.

Shelly said he hadn't slept since the Tuba City meeting, and perhaps because of that, appeared disengaged for most of the proceedings. Other than brief opening and closing remarks and a short prepared speech, he did not speak, and interview requests were once again denied.

There was wide a range of sentiments from the community during the Q-and-A session, but similar to the crowd in Tuba City, one theme remained constant: Shelly has already agreed to the settlement and what the community said doesn't matter.

Who's being rude?

A press release from Shelly's office painted the few dozen Pi–on High School students who attended the meeting as disrespectful and rude.

The press release failed to mention some key points.

Some students who signed up to speak were never called on. Others asked short questions that went totally unanswered by any of the assembled leaders.

Despite this, the meeting was relatively calm until moderator Bessie Yellowhair-Simpson cut short the statement being made by Pi–on resident Nicole Horseherder, a critic of the water settlement.

The entire crowd shouted its disapproval and booed, and Yellowhair-Simpson's condescending pleas for calm only added fuel to the fire.

"This chapter house, this hogan is a sacred place," Yellowhair-Simpson said. "We are guests here in this place, and we should respect that. All of you need to listen."

After silencing Horseherder, whom many in the community regard as an articulate advocate for Navajo interests, Yellowhair-Simpson announced the meeting would end at 8 p.m. to allow chapter workers to go home.

Only then did the students become visibly upset. Two students in particular stood and demanded to ask questions of the assembled leaders.

Other than Yellowhair-Simpson and Shelly, no one at the meeting who spoke publicly was shouted down or booed by the audience.

After the meeting the students confronted Shelly about their unanswered questions and derided him for looking like he was asleep and answering a phone call during the meeting, but not their questions.

Following the meeting, Vice President Rex Lee Jim spent over an hour with the students, listening respectfully to what they had to say.

Beyond the agreement

The president's office release also failed to mention the dramatic end of the meeting, which occurred when Delegate Dwight Witherspoon declared, "Is there anything good about this agreement?" and proceeded to parse the details.

A few in the audience shouted "No!" to his question, but Witherspoon then spent 10 minutes explaining what he sees as the good and bad sides of the proposed deal - the first leader to do so at either town hall meeting.

"There's on average 220,000 acre-feet of water running through the (Little Colorado River) each year. Right now 60,000 acre-feet are being used by off-the-reservation entities and the Navajo Nation only uses around 38,000 acre-feet," Witherspoon said.

"This deal gives us a right to all unappropriated water in the LCR once it gets to Navajo land. That's 100,000 acre-feet more than anyone else in the state. I think that's fair and it's OK to agree with that part," he said.

Other parts of the settlement agreement Witherspoon likes include the Navajo Nation's unlimited right to use the C-aquifer, groundwater development that will bring drinking water to 14 Native communities, and protection zones around the reservation boundary that would prevent new wells without Navajo Nation approval.

To Witherspoon the bad parts are just as obvious: Some sections of the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012, or Senate Bill 2109, go beyond the water rights settlement negotiated by the tribe, and are unrelated to it.

Title 2 includes language that would make the promised water for the Window Rock area hinge on federal approval of Peabody Western Coal Co.'s Black Mesa mining operation through 2044.

"Peabody is not a party in this settlement so why are they even in there?" Witherspoon asked. "Those are elements that have to come out. If it doesn't come out, I'm not going to vote for it."

Besides confirming a coal supply for the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., this section also would require the approval of lease extensions through 2044 for the power plant site, its supply of cooling water, and the transmission lines that serve it.

"I asked Kyl and McCain if we could amend this section," Witherspoon said, referring to an April 5 meeting with SB 2109 sponsors, senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, both R-Ariz. "They said yes you can do it, but there's a catch. If you say no to NGS you essentially say no to the water through the Navajo-Gallup pipeline for Window Rock."

"My belief is the people need to see this," Shelly said briefly at the end of the meeting. "The water commission and the attorneys have done their job. We paid them to do that and that's what they agreed to.

"Everyone needs to get educated about it," he said. "We want to see you have a voice. That's my position. My position is you need to get involved."

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