Water – Navajo Nation to vote on tribe's and state's future

Navajo Nation lawmakers are considering a landmark agreement that would secure the Nation’s claims to a share of water from the lower Colorado River and could promise relief to thousands of tribal citizens who now have to haul drinking water to their homes on the reservation.

The agreement goes before the Navajo Tribal Council and raises questions about its cost and scope. However, the agreement could also be a significant milestone for the Tribe and for Arizona. The state’s own water supplies are at risk as long as tribal claims remain unsettled.

The Navajo claims are the largest of the tribal water cases concerning the Colorado River awaiting resolution. Arizona has agreed to give up water for the Nation but in amounts far less than what a court could award. The water-sharing deal between the Navajo Nation, cities, and the state would also resolve claims by the Hopi Tribe.

Opponents on the Navajo Reservation say it cheats the tribe by settling for too little water and they are pressuring the Tribal Council to reject the settlement or postpone a vote until 2011, when a new council is seated.

If the Navajo Tribal Council approves the measure, the agreement still would face votes by the Hopi Tribe, the state Legislature, and Congress. The Hopi tribe has not set a date for deliberation, the Legislature likely would not take up the issue without approval from both tribes, and Congress must ratify the settlement and appropriate money to support it.

The settlement would allot 31,000 acre-feet a year to Navajos from the lower Colorado River and all of the unallocated flow of the Little Colorado River, which could amount to 160,000 acre-feet in an average year.

The deal would also quantify another unknown legal question of the tribes’ rights to groundwater. The Navajo and Hopi tribes sit atop two huge aquifers. They could pump whatever groundwater they need, except in several areas southwest of the Navajo Reservation where non-Indians have staked out wells.

Opponents say the tribes should demand more water in the millions of acre-feet instead of thousands. They accuse tribal negotiators of signing away rights.

The water for this agreement was set aside in 2004 as part of the Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act, which ceded more than 650,000 acre-feet of water to Indian tribes in the state. A tribe could get significantly more water if it pursued its case in court, which is why state and local officials are trying to settle the claims.

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