Update in the Valley focuses on water
By Carmenlita Chief
Special to the Times
PHOENIX, May 3, 2012
It was from Council Delegate Walter Phelps' public Facebook page that a number of Navajos here learned of the town hall meeting he held at the Phoenix Indian Center on the evening of April 26.
He updated his constituents about community projects, planned or in progress, at their respective chapters.
Phelps represents the chapters of Leupp, Birdsprings, Tolani Lake, Cameron and Coalmine Canyon - all located in the Western Agency of the Navajo Nation.
While his main objective was to "give insight into the legislative work and some of the initiatives that I've has been able to support or sponsor," the topic on everybody's mind was the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement, Senate Bill 2109, and its companion bill, H.R. 4067.
"It's basically my issue, our issue! Those of us who live in these areas will be greatly affected by it," Phelps said.
Phelps spoke a little over an hour. Afterwards, Arizona State University student Angela Tsinnie-Farnsworth, 39, from Tuba City, raised her hand to speak.
She expressed her concern with how tribal leaders were planning for the future and how there did not seem to be a strong regard for careful management and protection of natural resources.
From her perspective, economic development planning "did not necessarily seem to be in line with environmental sustainability."
She asked Phelps how Council delegates planned to make environmental sustainability a greater factor in future economic planning decisions.
Phelps answered by illustrating the increased collaboration with nonprofit organizations, universities, and regulatory departments such as the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.
The discussion led to the topic that everyone was waiting for - the water rights settlement agreement.
Leo Manheimer, who serves on the Navajo Nation's Water Rights Commission as a commissioner for the Western Agency, took the podium.
Manheimer condensed his 44-slide PowerPoint presentation into a time span of 70 minutes. The slides he used were the same ones shown at the seven town halls conducted by the commission and President Ben Shelly's office last month.
Manheimer, with assistance from Robert Kirk, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation's Department of Water Resources, outlined key sections of the settlement agreement.
While the audience was calm and listened intently, an hour into the talk a young Navajo woman at the front of the room alleged that the settlement was formed with heavy involvement from corporate stakeholders.
She said Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Coal Company with their lawyers and owners collaborated with Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl and the federal government.
Manheimer immediately interjected, telling the woman to stop mid-sentence.
He explained, "Anybody that says they have a claim in the LCR watershed, they are the only ones that have a say in the settlement. Not Peabody, not NGS."
The woman asked, "Then why are water rights tied in with corporation leases?"
The room was suddenly flooded with murmurs after the woman's question.
Phelps interrupted, saying that the presentation had gone beyond its time limit.
"Again, this was not intended to be a water rights forum but because the LCR is part of my jurisdiction we wanted to make sure we shared some information," Phelps said.
If Navajos in Phoenix wanted a full-length presentation on the water settlement, "Ask for it," Phelps said.
Manheimer said they could also go online to the commission's website.
Julius Badoni, 27, from Tahchee, Ariz., said he sees "a huge disconnect between the tribal government and the Navajo communities."
"I came here today to make sure that a lot of the community members' concerns were heard," he said.
Badoni is against the water settlement, saying he feels uneasy with the section of the bill requiring the nation to grant lease extensions for the Navajo Generating Station through 2044.
"No matter what they say, I feel like senators McCain and Kyl do not have the best interests of the Navajo people, and this is why NGS is included in this bill," he said.
Phoenix resident, Rita Mizell, 66, attended the meeting to get a better explanation of SB 2109, which she described as a bill that was very "ambiguous."
Though the Chambers, Ariz., native did not feel her questions were entirely answered, she said, "I'm just glad that these folks came here to try to explain the bill to us and share their knowledge."
Mizell is concerned with how future generations of Navajos will be impacted by the settlement should it be approved.
"I don't want them looking back and saying, "Those people back then - they sure screwed up!" she said.