Native American tribes give unanimous approval to proposal securing Colorado River water

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FILE - A windmill draws water for livestock in Leupp, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation, Saturday, March 9, 2024. In a vote on Thursday, May 23, 2024, the Navajo Nation Council has unanimously approved a proposed water rights settlement that carries a price tag larger than any such agreement enacted by Congress. (AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca, File)

The Navajo Nation Council has signed off on a proposed settlement that would ensure water rights for its tribe and two others in the drought-stricken Southwest — a deal that could become the most expensive enacted by Congress.

The Navajo Nation has one of the largest single outstanding claims in the Colorado River basin. Delegates acknowledged the gravity of their vote Thursday and stood to applause after casting a unanimous vote. Many noted that the effort to secure water deliveries for tribal communities has spanned generations.

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Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley and other officials stood outside the chamber in Window Rock, Arizona, under a clear blue sky as the wind whipped. She recalled learning about the fight over water rights in school when she was a girl.

Momentous is how she described the day, before she put her pen to the legislation and nearby vehicles honked their horns in celebration.

“This is an opportunity to think 100 years ahead for our children,” said Curley, a mother and soon-to-be grandmother.

“The time is now and we have to make our footing for the future," she continued.

The San Juan Southern Paiute Tribal Council also voted to approve the settlement Thursday, while the Hopi tribe approved it earlier this week. Congress will have the final say.

For Hopi, the settlement is a path to ensuring a reliable water supply and infrastructure for the health, well-being and economic prosperity of the tribe for generations to come, Hopi said in a statement late Thursday.

“Most importantly, this settlement provides a way for Hopi to fulfill its covenant with Maasaw (guardian) to live as stewards of Hopitutskwa (Hopi land),” the statement read.

Congress has enacted nearly three dozen tribal water rights settlements across the U.S. over the last four decades and federal negotiation teams are working on another 22 agreements involving dozens of tribes. In this case, the Navajo, Hopi and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes are seeking more than $5 billion as part of their settlement.

About $1.75 billion of that would fund a pipeline from Lake Powell, one of the two largest reservoirs in the Colorado River system, on the Arizona-Utah border. The settlement would require the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to complete the project by the end of 2040.

From there, water would be delivered to dozens of tribal communities in remote areas.

Nearly a third of homes in the Navajo Nation — spanning 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — don’t have running water. Many homes on Hopi lands are similarly situated.

Navajo President Buu Nygren plans to sign the settlement legislation as soon as it hits his desk, likely Friday. He told The Associated Press it had been a long road to get everyone to the table and the next step will be knocking on the doors of Congress.

A century ago, tribes were left out of a landmark 1922 agreement that divided the Colorado River basin water among seven Western states. Now, the tribes are seeking water from a mix of sources: the Colorado River, the Little Colorado River, aquifers and washes on tribal lands in northeastern Arizona.

The latest settlement talks were driven in part by worsening impacts from climate change and demands on the river like those that have allowed Phoenix, Las Vegas and other desert cities to thrive. The Navajo, Hopi and San Juan Southern Paiute tribes are hoping to close the deal quickly under a Democratic administration in Arizona and with Joe Biden as president.

Without a settlement, the tribes would be at the mercy of courts. Already, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the federal government is not bound by treaties with the Navajo Nation to secure water for the tribe. Navajo has the largest land base of any of the 574 federally recognized tribes and is second in population with more than 400,000 citizens.

A separate case that has played out over decades in Arizona over the Little Colorado River basin likely will result in far less water than the Navajo Nation says it needs because the tribe has to prove it has historically used the water. That’s hard to do when the tribe hasn’t had access to much of it, Navajo Attorney General Ethel Branch has said.

Arizona — situated in the Colorado River’s Lower Basin with California, Nevada and Mexico — is unique in that it also has an allocation in the Upper Basin. The state would get certainty in the amount of water available as it’s forced to cut back as the overall supply diminishes.

Navajo and Hopi, like other Arizona tribes, could be part of that solution if they secure the right to lease water within the state that could be delivered through a canal system that already serves metropolitan Tucson and Phoenix.

Arizona water officials have said the leasing authority is a key component of the settlement.

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