Skip to main content

Cities in the Desert Are Thirsty for Navajo Water

A column by Jihan Gearon about water rights in Indian country.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

This column was originally published on

Last weekend I traveled to Phoenix to visit my brother and friends, do some shopping, bask in the warm weather and basically, get away. When I was young the only time I went to Phoenix was for the state track meet or for a summer science program. It was so exciting. The big city! Bright and shiny. Hot. Fun. Full of current music and cute boys. Ahh Phoenix, the life-giving oasis. It was where I saw myself living one day when I “got away” from my boring and opportunity-less existence on the reservation. Today I still own remnants of that adolescent Phoenix State of Mind. I was excited about going to Phoenix last weekend. Besides the airport, I hadn’t spent any time there for quite awhile. Family, friends, shopping, warmth, cute boys…c’mon, I couldn’t wait!

Well friends, it was not what I expected- or rather, I was not what I expected. Instead of seeing just the shiny big city, I saw the unsustainable, unnatural virus of a city, growing and growing beyond its means. Instead of seeing just cute boys, I saw the 1.5 million people who have no idea where their energy comes from, where their water comes from, or how their city continues to grow in the middle of a desert! In addition to family and friends, I saw the family and friends who may never find their way back to our homeland or worse yet, find their way back to no homeland at all. Instead of a life giving oasis, I saw a life taking oasis.

By the end of May, the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe will have to vote yes or no on the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Settlement Act of 2012, also known as Senate Bill 2109 or House of Representatives Bill 4067. The broad overview is this: we (the Navajo Nation) would be required to permanently waive our aboriginal (as in first priority) rights to the Little Colorado River watershed for as-yet unfunded promises from Congress for two water delivery projects serving two (out of 110) communities. The LCR water settlement dispute has being going on for over 35 years. It’s said to be the longest running legal dispute in Arizona history. Needless to say, there is a lot at stake here, not only for the Navajo and Hopi reservations, but for all Navajos, all Hopis, all Arizonans, and all Southwesterners.

Here are the cons (there are many! So many, in fact, that I’ll only highlight a few of the key ones): First, in exchange for giving up forever our senior water rights, we receive only a promise of future water development. Congress may never actually allocate money to the projects, and even if they fail to pay for the water projects, the U.S. wouldn’t be held responsible. If the agreement is not finalized by 2031, the Tribes must forfeit their water rights to the federal government.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Second, it makes water delivery to Navajo and Hopi communities contingent upon the renewal of various leases- for transmission lines, coal, and water supplies- for the Navajo Generating Station through 2044. For example, the Window Rock area will get water only if the Navajo Nation approves a water lease for NGS for 34,000 acre-feet/year, a 32 year extension on what is provided to the plant now. A quick but important detour here: NGS is a coal-fired power plant that is located on the Navajo Nation, is powered by coal from the Navajo Nation, and runs with the help of free Navajo-owned water from the Colorado River. NGS’ primary job is to pump water down to central and southern Arizona through the Central Arizona Project or CAP. It is also majority owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamationgeg.

Third, it lets the federal government off the hook from protecting the Navajo Aquifer, which has already been drawn down to dangerous levels by coal mining on Black Mesa. Under current law the Department of the Interior has a responsibility to protect the N-Aquifer, but under this deal it won’t. As I said before, these are only a few of the key parts wrong with this settlement.

The pros are this: nowhere to be found! This settlement is being dangled in front of two Navajo communities as if it’s the only way they will ever receive running water and that, Last Real Indian readers, is a straight up lie. It has already been proven that there are other water resources for those two communities. The truth is that this bill is being fast-tracked to celebrate Jon Kyl’s retirement. Kyl is falsely portraying the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe as paupers who need this settlement. In actuality, the big cities of central and southern Arizona, the states of Nevada and California, the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, the Salt River Project and other non-Native entities are the ones who need it and will benefit from it the most. As one Navajo Nation Council Member said when the bill was first introduced, “Kyl is basically telling the Navajo Nation to bend over,”- just because he thinks he can.

I always think about how most from my generation, my high school classmates, family members, and good friends, have migrated to Phoenix and other big city border towns. Plus, who am I to talk? I live in the border town of Flagstaff, which may not be as gigantic as Phoenix, but prospers at the expense of the Navajo Nation just the same. Yet, unlike when I was younger, I see myself living back home on the rez one day. I think most of my relatives in the border towns have the same wish. We won’t be able to if we continue to give away our resources- our natural resources, our young people, our business, our attention, our engagement, and of course, our water.

The bottom line is this: the oasis of Phoenix is real. It really exists in all its suggestive splendor, a fertile refuge in a desert region. Like its namesake, Phoenix has risen and prospered from the ashes…of the Navajo Nation. The Phoenix oasis was stolen from the homelands of the Navajo and Hopi people. The only reason that Phoenix has been able to grow at the rate it has is because of cheap electricity and cheap water, a nearly free or entirely free gift from the Navajo Nation. The good news is our past leaders had the foresight to sign away these precious gifts for a limited time only and that time is coming to an end. We have a prime opportunity to reclaim those gifts by voting no on the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Settlement Act of 2012. For that reason, I’m very proud to call myself a last real Indian giver.

Jihan Gearon is the lead organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network's Native Energy Campaign. She is Dine (Navajo) and African American.