Thursday, June 13, 2024

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Diné Bikéyah close to reaching historic comprehensive water rights settlement

By Ethel Branch

Ethel Branch yinishyé. Shí éí Diné bi wááshindoon bi ‘agha’diit’aahii tso shi naanish. As the Navajo Nation Attorney General I serve as the Chief Legal Officer of the Navajo Nation and oversee all of the Navajo Nation’s legal matters, including our efforts to secure and protect the Nation’s water rights.

I am pleased to share that the Navajo Nation is close to reaching an historic comprehensive water rights settlement relating to our claims in the State of Arizona. If authorized and funded by the United States Congress, this settlement will provide billions of dollars’ worth of water infrastructure and development for Navajo communities in Arizona.

We are also on the precipice of a much-needed settlement of our water rights claims in the Rio San José and Rio Puerco Basins in New Mexico. This settlement promises to bring reliable access to clean drinking water to Eastern Navajo communities that currently only have access to poor quality and mostly unavailable groundwater supplies. Much of the water that is available is contaminated by uranium.

These proposed settlements offer us the opportunity to ensure that clean, reliable water will be available to protect the Navajo People and sustain life on Navajo lands now and into the future, forever.

In our settlement negotiations, the Navajo Nation was represented by a mostly Navajo team. In our Arizona settlement, our Negotiation Team included the Speaker of the 25th Navajo Nation Council, Crystalyne Curley, most of the Navajo Nation Council Delegates who represent Arizona communities, Navajo Nation Department of Justice Water Rights Unit Attorneys, Department of Water Resources Water Management Branch Hydrologists, and myself.

Many on our Negotiation Team grew up without running water and know on a personal basis the daily hardship our Navajo People, and especially our elders, face in gaining access to the most basic of human needs, and how hard it is to support a traditional Diné livestock raising and farming way of life without reliable water access.

Our negotiation teams for both settlements also drew on the assistance of expert outside counsel and technical staff and worked around the clock these last few months to finalize the settlements. Throughout these negotiations, we fiercely protected and defended the rights of our Navajo People. We have arrived at final settlements we believe you will be pleased with.

The Arizona settlement will fund five billion dollars’ worth of infrastructure that will end water starvation for thousands of Navajo families in Arizona whose homes currently lack access to piped water.

This will include the iiná bá – paa tuwaq’atsi pipeline (formerly known as the Western Navajo Pipeline) that will bring water to Tuba City and Cameron; the Four Corners Project that will bring water to Many Farms and Chinle; the Southwest Regional Groundwater Project that will bring water to Leupp, Dilkon, Birdsprings, Indian Wells, Teesto, and Tolani Lake; the Ganado Regional Groundwater Project that will bring water to Ganado, Steamboat, Cornfields, Kinlichee, and Jeddito; the Black Mesa Regional Groundwater Project that will bring water to Black Mesa, Shonto, and Forest Lake; the Lupton Area Project that will bring water to Lupton and Nahata Dziil; the Kayenta Aquifer Storage and Recovery Project that will bring water to Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso, Kayenta, Mexican Water, and Oljato; the Code Talker Lateral Extension that will bring water to Ganado, Jeddito, Steamboat, Kinlichee, and Cornfields; and local Upper Basin Water Projects that will bring water to Many Farms, Nazlini, Kayenta, Chilchinbeto, Rough Rock, Sweetwater, Mexican Water, Rock Point, and Tsaile/Wheatfields.

The New Mexico settlement will allow us to import clean drinking water to Navajo communities that have no other options. The Rio San Jose and Rio Puerco Basins lack quality water on the Navajo Nation, especially with the intensifying drought, and the water that does exist is highly contaminated. With the settlement, Tó Hajiileehé will be able to access clean drinking water supplied by the City of Albuquerque and will fund a Local Extension Project for a lateral from Crownpoint to Thoreau that will serve all the Navajo communities along the way.

These projects will bring real water to our Navajo People. These projects are also vital to us achieving the goal of developing a dynamic and adaptive global water supply system for the Nation that will meet our needs 100 years out – and beyond.

This settlement will also allow the Navajo Nation the flexibility we need to get water to all of our Arizona communities, regardless of what state the water is diverted in. This means, for example, that Arizona water diverted in New Mexico can be piped through the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project to serve Navajo communities in Lupton and Ganado. It also means that Arizona water diverted in Utah at Halchita can be piped to homes in Kayenta, as a further example.

This settlement will also allow the Nation to use Arizona Upper Basin Colorado River water in Arizona Navajo communities in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River, and vice versa. So, for example, we will be able to use water diverted from Lake Powell in Tuba City and Cameron (this is currently not lawful because Lake Powell is in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River and Tuba City and Cameron are in the Lower Basin of the Colorado River). This flexibility to move water between basins and to divert Arizona water in other states will provide the Nation with the water security we need to protect our future generations.

Based on my experience and expertise, I firmly believe that the benefits of these settlements far outweigh what the Nation could gain through continued, protracted, and multimillion-dollar litigation. For example, settlement offers us immediate and meaningful access to the firmest Colorado River water in Arizona, offers us billions of dollars’ worth of funding to develop the infrastructure we need to meet the currently unmet existing needs of our Navajo People, as well as our future needs, and in New Mexico offers us access to clean drinking water that is not otherwise available. These settlements offer us the opportunity for growth and economic prosperity, and a pathway home for our children and our grandchildren, and generations to come.

These settlements will deliver on the bargain that our revered leaders made over a hundred years ago at Bosque Redondo. It is now up to us to do our part to ensure that our beloved Navajo People may remain in our homeland from time immemorial and thereafter – forever.


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