Signing finalizes massive Navajo Utah water rights settlement
by David Boyle
The execution of the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement was completed with a signing of state, federal and tribal leaders in Monument Valley on May 27.
The agreement concluded 18 years of negotiations between the parties and affirms water rights of Utah Navajos, as well as over $200 million for water infrastructure in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
The settlement recognizes a reserved water right of 81,500 acre-feet of water annually for current and future use by the Navajo Nation in the state of Utah.
The agreement also allows the Nation to lease water shares.
The allocation comes from the Utah apportionment of the Colorado River basin which includes tributaries, meaning likely most of that allocation will be taken from the San Juan River.
As part of the settlement the federal government will pay the Navajo Nation over $210 million and the state of Utah will contribute $8 million toward drinking water infrastructure on the Navajo Nation.
Signing the agreement on May 27 was Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, and US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland.
About 100 people were in attendance at the event including community members, tribal, state and federal leaders including Utah Senator Mitt Romney.
Speaking at the event Senator Romney said not long after being sworn in as Utah Senator in 2018 he was approached by President Nez who explained the history of the controversy.
“For many many years there was a question about who had the rights to the water that flows through the Navajo Nation. As you can imagine people had different points of view. President Nez said we’ve come together and negotiated a settlement but we can’t get the federal government to make a final decision and to honor the agreement that we have amongst our people so we’re expecting you to get this done.”
Romney worked with former Senator Orrin Hatch, as well as Representative John Curtis on the congressional act which passed in December of 2020.
Although the act had passed, appropriation of the $210 million was still needed. As part of his work on the bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investments and Job Act, Romney worked to include funds for the settlement act as well as funds for other water infrastructure projects on tribal lands.
Romney shared that he was recently asked what Utah got out of the settlement.
“Well what Utah got out of it is the Navajos of Utah, who are citizens of our great country are going to get running water that’s what Utah got out of it. Of course we were also able to resolve something which could’ve involved the courts and millions of dollars of lawsuits needlessly.”
Romney was draped with a Pendleton blanket by members of the Navajo Nation Council following his remarks.
President Jonathan Nez also spoke at the event about what the settlement would mean for the constituents of the eight chapters located in Utah.
“These communities located in this area of Utah have been at the forefront of water insecurity and have managed to endure years of lack of access to clean running water. There are more than several hundred homes in the Navajo Utah region that do not have piped water infrastructure.”
Nez added that the issue is not unique to the Utah Navajo area, but includes the rest of the Navajo Nation and much of Indian country in the US. The challenge of not having access to clean running water has been made more evident during a pandemic as well as historic drought.
“There are significant water quality challenges in Navajo Utah communities namely elevated uranium and arsenic in ground water. Accessing surface water is an opportunity to provide water security for the largest land based and populated tribe in the United States.”
Nez noted the agreement was an important step for continued work to secure water rights on tribal lands.
“We know that access to clean water is a basic human right. It is a necessity that was secured for us by our leaders in our treaties and was pledged to be protected for us by agents of the United States Government. We are happy to see this promise being honored.”
Governor Spencer Cox shared words from years ago when he testified before congress regarding the settlement.
“We have committed to use negotiation rather than litigation as our preferred method of resolving reserved right claims. Such negotiations require commitment, patience and trust. We’ve developed a high level of trust with the Navajo Nation as we work together to develop a reasonable and equitable resolution of water rights claims for the portion of the Navajo Nation located within Utah’s borders.”
Cox also shared that the settlement was a show of how governmental entities can work together to resolve issues.
“We are better when we collaborate and we work together. Surely we have proven that commitment, patience, and trust can overcome any disagreements that we have.”
US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland recalled her own childhood hauling water at her grandparents before they were able to get running water in 1995.
“There’s no reason that in 2022 every community should still be facing these types of challenges and yet only half of the households on the Navajo Nation in Utah have indoor plumbing, those without indoor plumbing must haul water some as far away as 50 miles roundtrip from Halchita to Monument Valley. All the while the landscape here is primarily a desert receiving roughly only 7 inches of precipitation per year. For too long these poor water infrastructure conditions have burdened this community but today we hopefully begin to turn those challenges around.”
Haaland added that modern water infrastructure is crucial for healthcare, economic opportunities and responding to the effects of climate change.
“We are taking a significant step forward in our efforts to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, has access to adequate water infrastructure that is designed for the 21st century.”
Also speaking at the event was Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, and Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer.
Assistant Attorney General for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice Michelle Brown-Yazzie was master of ceremony for the event. Hatááłii Avery Denny provided the opening and closing prayers.
Among those in attendance at the event were elected officials from throughout Utah and the Navajo Nation.
San Juan County area representatives State Senator David Hinkins and House Representative Phil Lyman were in attendance. Navajo Nation Council Delegates who represent Utah Chapters including Herman Daniels Jr. and Charlaine Tso were in attendance. As well as local leaders San Juan County Commissioners Bruce Adams and Willie Grayeyes and Oljato chapter president Willis Begaye.
Dozens of other current and former elected officials, community members were in attendance and were thanked for their work on the settlement during the event.