By Susan Montoya Bryan -- Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The Navajo Nation has been working for decades to settle a dispute over rights to San Juan River water, but environmentalists say they're concerned the tribe could use the water rights under a settlement pending in Congress to feed a proposed coal-fired power plant on the reservation.
''This water should be for the Navajo people, not a massive energy project,'' Dailan Long, a member of Dine' Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, said July 20. ''... If the [Navajo] Nation is planning on handing the people's water over to the energy industry, we need to know now.''
Dine' CARE and other environmental groups have been working to stop the $3 billion Desert Rock Energy Project from being built on tribal land in northwestern New Mexico.
The plant, a joint venture between Houston-based Sithe Global Power and the tribe's Dine' Power Authority, would be the third coal-fired plant in San Juan County. Navajo officials have said the project will mean new jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for the tribe.
A spokesman for Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. said both Desert Rock and the water rights settlement are ''critical'' to the future of the tribe but that they are separate issues.
''It's not responsible to suggest that water people need to drink is going to go to Desert Rock,'' said George Hardeen, Shirley's spokesman.
With as many as half of the people living on the Navajo reservation without running water and the nearby city of Gallup worried it will run out of water, New Mexico's two U.S. senators have been pushing legislation that would put the settlement in place.
The agreement, which could cost the federal government $1 billion over 15 to 20 years, calls for a pipeline to serve the Navajos and other communities in western New Mexico. It also would create a water rights settlement fund in the federal treasury to pay for it and future Indian water agreements.
Shirley told Navajo delegates this week that many Navajos who haul water would be affected by the settlement.
''Although construction of the project will not eliminate all water hauling on our land, this project will deliver water to tens of thousands of people who don't have it now,'' he said.
Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, another group that opposes Desert Rock, said he's concerned because the legislation pending before Congress doesn't prohibit the tribe from using San Juan water for the plant.
The San Juan Citizens Alliance and Dine' CARE filed a request with the BIA under the Freedom of Information Act for documents related to Desert Rock's proposed water use. They are seeking lease agreements between the tribe and developers as well as information on alternative sources of water for the plant.
''We call on Congress to put this legislation on hold at least until the BIA releases the agreements being approved between the Navajo Nation and Desert Rock,'' Eisenfeld said. ''We need to get to the bottom of this.''
Desert Rock developers argue that the information on water availability would have been included in the BIA's draft environmental impact statement had opponents not blocked drill crews from the proposed site in December of 2006.
Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Sithe Global Power, said crews have since drilled one test well and are working on a second one, and the results are what company officials had expected.
''I can't say it any more clear. We're confident we've got the water that we need,'' Maisano said.
Desert Rock was designed as a dry-cooled plant, which Maisano said trims water use over traditional plants by 85 percent. Most of that would go toward pollution controls, he said.
Desert Rock would use about 4,500 acre-feet of water each year, he said. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.