Hopis question pros, cons of water deal

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

POLACCA, Ariz., March 29, 2012

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W hat do we get and what do we have to give up?"

That's how Hopi Chairman Leroy Shingoitewa characterized the average Hopi reaction to the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act.

Two forums held March 20, one public and one not so public, attempted to answer this question for the Hopi people.


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The Hopi Memorial Veterans Center was the site of the official government forum on the proposed act, SB 2109. This forum, and another held in Tuba City the previous night, was for Hopis only. All news media and non-Hopis were asked to leave.

In attendance were Shingoitewa, most of the members of the Hopi Water and Energy Team and Seattle attorney Joe Mentor Jr. who Shingoitewa said three weeks ago was brought in to "help put the finishing touches on the deal."

Mentor did a PowerPoint presentation for those in attendance.

"The people became involved with really good questions," Shingoitewa said about both forums. "It's the first time they've heard the hard facts about these negotiations. I feel good about them.

"We're saying to the people what we did in the negotiations and the actual intent of the language in the agreement," he said. "We're also going through the benefits and the pros and cons of the agreement."

Shingoitewa believes that the deal's central compromise of waiving the Hopi Tribe's "past, present, and future claims for water rights arising from time immemorial and, thereafter, forever," in exchange for a ground water project on the Hopi Reservation is a good deal.

"What it comes down to is this concept, the concept that wet water is brought to our people," he said. "That's the goal for the tribe."

The concept of wet water might seem strange but his comment references the compromise of the SB 2109 agreement. Wet water is a legal term used to distinguish what water you legally can claim, termed paper water, and the water you can actually use, which is wet water.

Shingoitewa was asked about the ground water project included in the settlement but offered no specifics. The size, scope, purpose, and location of this ground water project are unknown, although its cost, according to the bill, shall not be more than $113 million.

Shingoitewa envisions "one project that will connect Moenkopi to Keams Canyon."

"It's an agreement in principal to trying to get a settlement," Shingoitewa explained about SB 2109. "But there's been no final approval. It still has to go to the people. This isn't the only time we'll see the people. We'll need to go back again. It's complicated. They need time to digest it.

We will do more follow-up presentations."

Meanwhile, five miles down State Route 264 at the Kykotsmovi community center, former Hopi chairman Ben Nuvamsa and former Hopi chief justice Gary LaRance hosted another forum.

"We've got nothing to gain here," Nuvamsa said. "No monetary gain at all. I was raised the Hopi way. I know the value of water to our people. We're protecting our aboriginal rights. We're protecting our ceremonies. Water is there and in our songs. That's what we're protecting."

This forum was open to the public and the news media, activists and non-Hopis were allowed to attend.

LaRance explained that the Hopi Tribe is involved in several different court cases to determine exactly how much water the tribe is entitled to.

"If we sign off on 2109 we'll never know," he said. 'We don't know how much water we can get because we haven't gotten a court decision yet. That's what we're giving up the right to know."

Nuvamsa expressed concern about waiving aboriginal claims to water especially when what the tribe is getting in exchange isn't even paid for.

"The bill only says that money is available for the project if appropriated," he said. "There is no guarantee there will be funding for anything at all especially if there's an administration change in DC."

Nuvamsa also cautioned the audience that "non-Indian interests get considerable federal benefits and protections" from SB 2109. Those interests include Peabody's Kenta mine on Black Mesa.

If SB 2109 becomes law the Navajo Nation will have to extend the life of the Kayenta mine through 2044 and agree to let the Navajo Generating Station near Page use water "for consumptive uses" through 2044 as well.

"What are we giving up and what are we getting in return?" LaRance asked. "Considering how we've been treated in the past, isn't that fair to ask? History shows that when we negotiate with the federal government we lose. Every generation has its challenge. This is ours.

"To look at SB 2109 and see if it's a good deal for us," he said. "To make sure we don't regret this 150 or 200 years from now like we regret losing our aboriginal homelands. We've got to think before we sign this thing."

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