San Juan County Commission hears report on water adjudication in southeast Utah and Utah portion of Navajo Nation
by David Boyle
Members of the county commission approved a resolution supporting the creation of a Utah Inland Port Authority project area in the county and received a report on water rights at their latest meeting.
The San Juan County Commission also received a presentation from the Utah Division of Water Rights regarding upcoming and current adjudication processes underway in the area at their November 21 meeting.
As part of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement, the Utah Division of Water Rights is currently in the process of adjudicating water rights in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. The division is also working in southeast Utah to adjudicate water rights.
Water rights adjudication is a legal process that is intended to identify historic and existing water rights in a specific area and document their use.
The 15-step process includes three phases designed to contact those with water rights claims in the adjudication area, and verify those claims before ultimately securing a judicial decree to define and protect water rights.
Utah Division of Water Rights Assistant State Engineer Michael Drake presented to the commission at their November 21 meeting.
The first phase will include a notice in the paper as well as mass mailers including summons in the mail and a notice to file a claim.
Those mailers will be sent to every water right holder of record in the office but also to every property owner in the mail.
“So these are huge mailers, thousands of pieces of mail go out,” said Drake.
“Of course, 90 percent of people that get this don’t have a water right. They don’t need to respond. The reason we send this to everyone, we want it to be comprehensive, we want to make sure that anyone that might have a water right has an opportunity to bring it forth. Because if they don’t at this point, at some point through this process they will lose the right to do it.”
While most property owners won’t need to do anything with the mailer, knowing the adjudication is underway can help water rights holders to prepare for the process.
In the second phase of the process, Drake explained that the division will make a list of historically recorded water rights that did not receive a claim, and then ask the court to abandon those.
“In the past, the adjudication process would get hung up on this. We’d be chasing people down that maybe they’re dead, maybe they’re a couple generations dead and there was no one that knew anything about those water rights so it was really difficult to end those adjudications.”
In phase three, Division of Water Rights staff will evaluate claims and create a comprehensive book to be filed with the court. Water users can object to rulings in the draft which will need to be resolved. Once resolved the judge will be able to issue a final decree for the area.
Drake reports the adjudication process in southeastern Utah is nearly complete in Grand County, with San Juan County to follow.
Going forward, the Division of Water Rights is planning to work through four mapped areas in San Juan County to adjudicate. Drake says they are not working on water rights within the Bears Ears National Monument right now.
The first mapped area the Division plans to work through is the so-called Lower Montezuma Canyon. The area is north of the Navajo borders on the east side of the county, but stops short of Monticello.
“We want to kind of get in the area, and given our propensity to serve summons on people and scare people. Maybe we want to do it in a less populated area, get people used to the idea, and talk to their neighbors. Figure out you have to do a couple of things to make sure you’re straight but otherwise this isn’t that scary of an issue before we roll into the Monticello and Blanding areas.”
Those adjudication areas typically take three to four years to complete with the Lower Montezuma Canyon area likely won’t be opened up until summer 2024 or the end of 2024.
Adjudication is also underway for the Navajo Nation in Utah.
Drake shared that there have been no objections made to the list of unclaimed rights published in May 2023, and that the evaluation of claims is 95-percent complete. Next up will be the draft of reserved rights marking the start of phase three, that draft is anticipated to be published in early 2024.
As part of the federal government’s involvement with the Navajo Utah project, a hydrographic survey is required. Drake reports while his department isn’t conducting the survey it’s about halfway complete but the contract to finish the project has been on hold.
Those processes will be required before water infrastructure can be built on Navajo Utah.
Nearly $250 million for projects will be available for Navajo Nation water projects as the remaining federal and state implementation steps are completed.
That infrastructure will be built under the direction of the Navajo Nation to benefit Utah Navajos.
One project under consideration is known as the Sweetwater Pipeline. That project would combine work on Navajo Utah with infrastructure in the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply project; that project will serve Navajo New Mexico and the town of Gallup.
The proposed pipeline would take water from the water treatment plant in Shiprock and extend pipelines delivering water to Navajo Utah.
Infrastructure funds would only be used in Utah where the project would deliver drinking water from Shiprock, through northern Arizona and back up into Utah residents starting in Red Mesa and Teec Nos Pos, but eventually moving up into the Aneth chapter including Montezuma Creek.
Members of the San Juan County Commission also approved a notice of intent to negotiate a contract with Davis Construction Solutions for the proposed county landfill scale house project.
The proposed $250,000 project includes the building and design for the concrete foundation, septic and electrical infrastructure and construction of the 30’x40’ scale house building.
Members of the commission also unanimously approved a resolution supporting the creation of a Utah Inland Port Authority project area in the county. The resolution was brought forward by Commissioner Sylvia Stubbs.
Members of the commission also held a public hearing for the 2024 tentative budget.
County Administrator Mack McDonald explained that the hearing is an introduction of the budget to the public. And noted that the tentative budget includes department requests but is not a complete budget. Meaning that first draft did not need to be a balanced budget, though state statute requires the final budget passed be balanced.