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Navajo Water Commissioner Manheimer Stresses Need for Good Agreement in Water Rights Case

A column by Leo Manheimer about Navajo water rights.

The Navajo Nation has been in litigation over our Little Colorado River water rights for 33 years and the litigation continues today. The children who were born when this fight began are now grown and are caring for children of their own.

One thing has been true throughout every moment of our people’s history—whether it was centuries ago when our ancestors grazed their herds on these same lands, or today—water means life. There is nothing more important to our children and to our families than access to clean, reliable sources of water.

As a member of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, my highest priority is to find a resolution that secures and protects our sacred rights to water. And I know that our claim to this land runs much deeper than any federal agreement or Supreme Court ruling.

But our claim to our water is put at risk if we continue to pursue litigation. In court, there are two sides, and one side ultimately will prevail. There is always a chance that the loser could be us, and courts have become increasingly unfriendly to tribal rights.

Working together with the Hopi Tribe, the other major users of Little Colorado River water and our Senate delegation, we have forged another path to secure clean, reliable drinking water for future generations. This path comes with hundreds of millions of dollars for needed infrastructure to deliver that water to homes and remote communities on the Navajo Nation that have never had this lifeline. This agreement, the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement, provides certainty for our people.

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If passed, the legislation would approve an agreement negotiated with the participation of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission and the Water and Energy Team of the Hopi Tribe that preserves the waters of the Little Colorado River for future Navajo and Hopi development and protects our aquifers. That means dependable drinking water for our homes, businesses, hospitals and schools—especially in under-served areas in the southern part of our Nation.

Contrary to misleading statements that have been circulating through our community, this agreement secures our rights. It ensures that Tribal members will have access to Little Colorado River water that flows through our nation. Right now, we can do nothing to stop outsiders who buy land upstream from taking this water before it reaches us or from pumping groundwater out from under us.

If this settlement isn’t approved and we choose to keep going for years or even decades in litigation—we risk losing water that should rightfully be ours. We cannot allow Little Colorado River water to be taken away. With the settlement we protect our water rights and also get money necessary for projects to deliver water to Navajo communities.

I urge you to learn the truth about this agreement and talk to your friends and neighbors about the importance of the agreement for our future.

Leo Manheimer is a Navajo Nation Water Rights Commissioner representing the Western Navajo Agency.