Navajo Hopi Water Rights Debate Continues as Navajo Council Denies Agreement

Little Colorado River

Navajo Hopi Water Rights Debate Continues as Navajo Council Denies Agreement; Hopi Approves

The Navajo Nation shot down a settlement agreement this week that would have settled long-standing claims to water in the Little Colorado River, a tributary to the Colorado River.

But their neighbors, the Hopi Tribe, went the opposite way. The Hopi council, after voting its displeasure at the Senate Bill linked to the settlement, voted to approve the settlement itself, called the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Settlement Act of 2012.

Opponents of the settlement took a highly vocal stand against it during deliberations on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations.

“I haven’t seen this kind of response from the grassroots community in many, many years,” said Jamescita Peshlakai, a Navajo tribal member who says she was especially leery of the settlement’s vague language. “I’m glad that our elected leaders are truly listening to the people.”

It’s doubtful whether the settlement can move forward with the approval of just one of the two tribes, but Micah Lomaomvaya, chief of staff for Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, remains hopeful.

“This has gone on since the 1970s,” he said. “We’ve worked on a product. We’ve endorsed it. We don’t want the decades of work to go to nothing; we want to see the benefit go to the Hopi people.”

The settlement would have established rights to the Little Colorado River and the C aquifer, which underlies parts of both reservations. Negotiations involved more than 30 parties with interests in the water, including the state of Arizona and nearby cities. The resulting, 100-plus page document was a delicately woven tapestry of benefits and concessions. The Navajo Nation, for example, would have secured rights to all the water entering the Navajo Nation via the Little Colorado River.

But Navajo settlement opponents balked at language that assured an ongoing water supply for the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona, even though Navajo Nation attorney Stanley Pollack has said the provision lacked substance because it gave NGS nothing beyond what’s already in the lease. Another contested – and confusing – provision appears to have been designed to limit the tribe’s ability to sue for material damage from decades of water pumping by Peabody Coal.

Peshlakai believes the tribes shouldn’t be giving away anything to get clean drinking water, a birthright for other American citizens. And she says as both a Navajo and a veteran of the Persian Gulf War, she’s aware that plenty of sacrifices have already been made.

“The federal government ought to have provided this many years ago,” she said. “Our Code Talkers helped win the war. Our natural resources have been taken basically for free. We’re powering the Southwest. We should not be giving away our water rights now in order to get the vague promise of a pipeline.”

Lomaomvaya said the Hopi Tribe would have benefitted from a plan, outlined in the settlement agreement, for sustainable management of the N aquifer shared by the two tribes. They say such a plan is sorely needed given the aquifer’s heavy use, primarily by the Navajo Tribe, for commercial and industrial purposes.

Leaders from both tribes were delighted with infrastructure projects they’d worked into the settlement that would have delivered clean drinking water to rural communities that now lack it. And both tribes are already brainstorming ways to pursue those projects even if the settlement isn’t going to forge the path.

Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo President Ben Shelly, said the Navajo Nation could ask its people to vote for a disbursement from the tribe’s permanent trust fund to pay for the water projects that had been proposed in the settlement. But he worries that getting the entire Nation to approve money for three community water projects would be politically challenging.

As for the Hopi Tribe, Lomaomvaya said he’s holding out hope that the settlement agreement could still be put to good use.

“We definitely have communicated to the senators our endorsement of it,” he said.

On June 15, the Hopi Council passed resolution H-072-2012 by a vote of 11-4. That action was brought by three former Hopi tribal chairmen – Ben Nuvamsa, Ivan Sidney and Vernon Masayesva – and opposed SB 2109. But on June 21, Shingoitewa cast the tie-breaking vote to pass resolution H-073-2012, which endorsed the settlement agreement. Lomaomvaya said the council will meet again on July 9 for further discussion of the opposition legislation, H-072-2012, although he wasn’t clear on the possible outcomes of that meeting.

This past week, the Navajo Nation council voted 15-6 to oppose legislation No. 0230-12, sponsored by Speaker Johnny Naize, which sought approval of the settlement. In a separate vote, the council voted 15-1 to approve legislation No. 0149-12, sponsored by Council Delegate Katherine Benally. That bill opposes SB 2109. The Council also unanimously passed a directive for Naize to appoint council delegates to a task force, charged with drafting a new water rights settlement on behalf of the Nation.

Peshlakai says she recognizes that there are good parts of the settlement that should be retained in any ongoing negotiations. But she hopes any future deals will be a lot easier to understand – and a lot less vulnerable to unfavorable interpretations by future lawyers and judges.

“I’m not against growth. I’m not against jobs or the economy,” she said. “But I’m very, very skittish about anything that someone has to re-interpret to me when I can read English.”