While Little Colorado River Dispute Heats Up, Massive Project Is Under Way to Deliver Water to Navajo Nation

A story about Navajo Nation water rights.

The Navajo Nation’s water comes from a variety of sources—wells, rainfall, reservoirs and rivers. But for some 40 percent on the nation, water comes from gallon jugs and barrels trucked in over miles of dirt roads to reach homes, businesses and livestock. A major construction project in New Mexico will change that for many residents. One of the unique features of the Navajo Nation is its size and location—more than 25,000 square miles, and parts of it lie in three different states. “Our water comes from many different basins,” says Jason John, acting branch manager of the Navajo Nation’s Water Management Branch. “It’s our job to work with states to quantify water rights, particularly in the Colorado River basin. Water rights are adjudicated by basin and by state.” The different basins include the Upper Colorado River Basin, the Lower Colorado River Basin and the Rio Grande Basin. The Upper Colorado River Basin includes the San Juan River, for which water rights were agreed upon with the state of New Mexico, the United States and the Navajo Nation in 2009. This settlement came out of a long, slow process that started back in the 1960s. Though parts of the larger Navajo-Gallup Water Supply (NGWS) project are already completed—grandfathered into the settlement—ground breaks for a major portion of it this spring. The San Juan River Settlement allocates approximately 55 percent of that river’s water in New Mexico to the Navajo Nation, though much of that is already in use by or allocated to the nation. The project, which, according to a letter to the Farmington Daily Times by Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission Chair Benjamin Cowboy, “is structured to provide a ‘win-win’ alternative…forgoing claims to much greater quantities of water in return for the development of much needed drinking water projects—primarily the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which will bring drinking water to Navajo communities, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the city of Gallup.” The first phase of construction, under the management of the Bureau of Reclamation, will join existing water lines on Navajo lands to the city of Gallup’s water system. This area was chosen as a first priority because it will meet critical, immediate needs for an estimated 6,000 residents. “There are existing wells in that area for ground water for short term use for communities, which will be supplied via the pipeline the Bureau is building,” explains Patrick Page, a project manager for the NGWS project. “We’ll deliver water in two to three years using this approach. Otherwise, they’d be waiting several more years before river water could reach them. “This project is sized and designed to serve a 2040 estimated population on the Navajo Nation of 250,000,” he adds. “This project is all about bringing water to the people. The federal government is constructing this transmission line to connect the river with existing distribution systems. Those existing lines carry ground water, which is dwindling or poor quality, or not reliable. Much of the Navajo Nation’s water comes from wells throughout the reservation and is very limited. Gallup’s water comes from ground water wells and aquifers, too, which is also limited.” According to Page, Gallup will start work on areas of its own section, designed to expand capacity in the water system and connect existing water treatment facilities and pumping stations through Gallup to the communities of Churchrock and Lyanbito. By 2013, Page says, four major NGWS pipeline projects will be under way. When completed (estimated to be by 2024), the entire $870 million NGWS project will comprise 280 miles of pipeline and be turned over to the Navajo Nation for operations and maintenance. By connecting a supply of river water to the existing pipeline structure, much of it built by the Indian Health Service, many in the New Mexico section of the Navajo Nation will have a steady supply of safe drinking water. As part of the pipeline, the city of Gallup will also receive some water. But New Mexico is only one-third of the Navajo Nation’s water supply story. Negotiations with two other states, Arizona and Utah, are also proceeding, according to John. “We also have aspirations for Utah and the San Juan Basin there, and Arizona and the Little Colorado Basin,” Page says. “We’ve been in negotiations with both for years, especially with Arizona. Utah is more recent and progressing well.” The Navajo Nation and the State of Utah are waiting for the Department of Interior to join in the discussions, since any agreement that includes building water pipelines would require federal funds. John says a federal team that assists with water rights for this tribe has been assigned to them, but has not yet joined the discussions. “This gives a way for the Feds to know what’s going on, but the Feds are not at the table yet. The Navajo Nation and Utah have a draft settlement agreement almost finalized, but would like the Feds involved before finalizing it. We’re concerned if an agreement is okayed between us, that Interior could say they weren’t aware of or party to the discussion, so they don’t have to help out in any way.” Though John was not able to specify details about the draft agreement, the Deseret News recently reported that Utah Governor Gary Herbert included $2 million in the fiscal year 2013 budget toward the state’s estimated $8 million proposal. Under the terms of the draft agreement, the remainder of the $154 million tab would be picked up by the federal government. An agreement in Arizona would be more complicated because players there include the Hopi Tribe in addition to the State of Arizona, the Navajo Nation and the United States. The two sources of water under discussion in Arizona are the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River. In the past, the entities tried to settle both water sources at same time. “We even came to an agreement a couple of years ago,” adds John. “We got the Navajo Nation Council to approve the settlement and that is where it all ended. We never got to the state of Arizona, because the Hopi didn’t approve it.” That was in 2008, when the economy faltered, and there was no federal money for any projects. “We’re hoping to get the Little Colorado done sooner, which includes the Hopis, because it has a much smaller price tag,” says John. “Projects in this area are tied to groundwater on the Navajo Nation, and availability of water is not an issue. Both tribes share the aquifer and it is used only by the tribes.” But trying to get the two tribes to agree upon water rights is difficult. Both could claim original rights, and both have traditional cultural ties to the water. Still, John is optimistic that an agreement can be reached soon. The crux of the issue is clean, safe drinking water for the Navajo Nation. The need is large, and political, cultural and bureaucratic factors make moving forward a slow process.