Phoenix/ Politics & Govt
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Published on May 15, 2024
Navajo Nation on Brink of Historic Colorado River Water Rights Victory Amid Widespread SupportSource: Google Street View

In a move that may finally address long-standing water rights issues, the Navajo Nation Council is set to deliberate on a proposed water rights settlement. According to a report by AZPM, the Navajo Nation, along with the Hopi and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes, are on the verge of securing water from the Colorado River among other sources, a deal that marks a significant step forward from the 1922 agreement that excluded tribes.

The efforts to conclude this agreement are compounded by the realities of climate change, pandemic pressures, and the needs of thriving cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas. For the Navajo Nation, which spans a vast area of 27,000 square miles across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the significance of this development becomes clear considering nearly a third of their homes lack running water. The Hopi and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes are similarly affected, with many homes not connected to a water supply.

As the Hopi Tribal Council gears up for their meeting to consider the settlement on May 20, "We will have economic opportunities that our tribal members have never seen before, and which will give hope and pride to our people," said Robbin Preston Jr., President of the San Juan Southern Paiute tribe, in a statement obtained by AZPM. The San Juan Southern Paiute are also seeking congressional approval for an 8.4 square-mile reservation within the Navajo reservation, pursuant to a treaty signed in 2000.

Navajo and Hopi tribes could see about 47,000 acre-feet of water in the Colorado River's Upper Basin and additional water from the Lower Basin under the terms of the settlement, which also includes provisions to draw water from the Little Colorado River. It's a critical provision given the historical difficulties of proving water use when access has been restricted, a dilemma highlighted by Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch. Through this potential settlement, the Navajo Nation also seeks more than $5 billion in federal funding to support the infrastructure necessary to harness these water resources.

Tom Buschatzke, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources, stressed the importance of the deal, not just for its size, but also as it offers a resolution decades in the making. "The leasing authority is a key component of the settlement, and will allow for the tribes to get value for these water supplies as they grow into their own use and infrastructure is built over time," Buschatzke told AZPM in an email.

The proposed settlement will next require a series of approvals, culminating with Congress. Its progress is closely watched by tribal community members, with the outcome bearing deeply on the future of water access and economic opportunities for generations to come. At community meetings, the urgency is palpable, as residents like Marlene Yazzie question, "How many more years do we have to wait?" revealing a collective yearning for the very basic necessities that many take for granted.