Navajo Utah leadership plan for what comes next following Water Rights Settlement

Now that the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement has been finalized, Navajo Nation officials will work on how to spend the $218 million for infrastructure as well as allocate the annual allotment of 81,500 acre-feet.

With around half of Utah Navajo residents living without running water, the top priority of tribal leaders is connecting residents to water infrastructure.

Speaking in Oljato following the signing of the agreement Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez shared that like many on the Navajo Nation, even his family members in Shonto, Arizona, doesn’t have running water.

“Thirty-to-forty-percent of our Navajo people don’t have running water and this is going to help significantly. Especially in a time of pandemic, water is needed in our communities.”

The $218 million from the settlement, CARES Act, and ARPA funds are already being utilized for water infrastructure, says Nez. Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is providing funds to Indian Health Services for water sanitation.

The nation is working with engineering companies such as Brown and Caldwell to begin planning to connect existing water lines in the area.

“The next step is how to plan the interconnection with the water coming from the San Juan River with what we’re proposing here as other water lines on the Navajo Nation. That’s going to be key.”

While the water infrastructure projects will certainly increase the number of Navajo homes that are connected to running water, it likely won’t mean all homes will be connected.

Nez explained that spending millions of dollars to take a water line to just one home is not feasible, but clustered communities will have higher priority to be funded.

“It’s got to be feasible. We always tell our constituents if you want to live far away from the electricity or the water then you have to recognize that you may not get water. But if you start planning right now, family members start putting their homes into one area, then it's more feasible to get water lines or electricity to those areas.”

Of course, allocating the settlement funds and creating the infrastructure will take approval from the legislative branch of the Navajo Nation government, with significant input from local chapter leaders.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso represents five chapters on the council, including four chapters with constituents in Utah.

Speaking at the event Tso shared that the council is hoping to build the infrastructure to bring relief to constituents.

“Connecting homes and especially those who have farmlands and helping sustain the land and definitely helping these families through this drought. I know it's one of the worst droughts we have seen in decades.”

Delegate Tso also hopes that the settlement can help bring economic relief to her area.

“I know that many want to invest in different infrastructures such as food production. That’s how we are trying to start that sustainability. Surviving on our own again. Right now this opens many opportunities for my Utah constituents.``

Economic development as a result of the settlement is also on the mind of Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer. He said creating economic growth, especially after the loss of the Navajo Generating Station near Page which also resulted in the loss of 2,000 direct and indirect jobs and $30-$50 million in annual economic activity.

Lizer sees potential on the shores of Lake Powell.

“I think tourism is the low-hanging fruit. Hopefully, most of it goes to tourism and then bringing water to our people as well.”

Lizer says increasing tourism will also likely require a new agreement regarding Lake Powell.

The original 1970’s intergovernmental agreement between federal agencies and the Navajo Nation states that any land below 3,720 feet elevation belongs to the National Park Service and Bureau of Reclamation.

Members of the Nation’s To’ Niltoli’ Task Force have been working to change how Lake Powell is administered, proposing a centerline boundary, meaning the boundaries would use the center of the San Juan and Colorado rivers as the dividing line.

Lizer says they’d like to see the change to open up access at the lake, with the drops in lake levels the Nation has been unable to launch boats at Antelope point.

Other economic activities could arise from the settlement. President Nez shared that they’ll have discussions about the possibility of leasing water rights to other users.

“If we’re going to be sitting on paper water as they say with the number of acre feet of water. And we’re not able to use it or get constructed; we might as well lease it to those that are in need. Of course there’s a drought happening in the SW there’s a demand for water in various places throughout the region.”

Regardless of how the Navajo Nation decides to manage its new water shares or utilize the funds for water infrastructure, leaders celebrated the settlement in Monument Valley.

Delegate Tso shared gratitude for previous leaders and for the patience of Utah constituents.

“It instills more hope for our people. Again today the feeling that I have is pure excitement. I’m very much looking forward to the future and what we’re going to be doing. I hope our communities will come together. We’re going to work together and find these solutions to help our Utah Navajo thrive again.”

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