FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Two northeastern Arizona tribes would waive their rights to water from the Little Colorado River in exchange for the promise of groundwater delivery projects under legislation introduced Tuesday in Congress.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who has shepherded other key American Indian water rights settlements through Congress, had asked negotiators for the tribes and 30 other entities to lower the cost of what was once an $800 million agreement so he could introduce the legislation ahead of his planned retirement.
“I believe this bill represents the best opportunity for all of the parties and for the American taxpayer to achieve a fair result,” Kyl, a Republican, said in a speech on the Senate floor. “The settlement resolves significant legal claims, limits legal exposure, avoids protracted litigation costs and, most importantly, saves lives.”
Tribes often trade what could be huge water claims for the promise of federal funding to deliver water to tribal communities. While Kyl’s legislation identifies funding sources, the groundwater projects are largely dependent on appropriations and are expected to cost more than $315 million.
The Little Colorado River runs through the southwestern portion of the Navajo Nation. Some Navajos and Hopis strongly believe the tribes have rights to most, if not, all the water and that their governments should fight for it in court.
They were angry at the news that the settlement, which has been in the works for decades, went to Congress before the tribal councils.
“Sen. Kyl has betrayed us by rushing this legislation without the Hopis getting an opportunity to have their voice be heard,” said Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi chairman and co-founder of the Black Mesa Trust.
Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, said the group wouldn’t support the settlement when it means signing away rights to surface water for groundwater without funding to access it.
“As every Navajo knows, you can’t drink paper water,” she said.
Navajo water rights attorney Stanley Pollack, who has been working on the tribes’ claims to the Little Colorado River since 1985, is set to brief Navajo lawmakers this week on the deal. He said he remains optimistic that the Navajo Nation Council, whose members differ from those who approved a version of the deal last year, will agree to it.
“For more than 20 years or for more than one-fifth of the time Arizona has been a state, we’ve been in negotiations over this issue,” he said.
The water rights deal once included claims to water from the lower Colorado River basin and a $515 million pipeline project to deliver it to Navajo communities, as well giving the Navajos any unclaimed flows in the Little Colorado River and settling the Hopis claims to the tributary. The Navajo Nation has said it now will pursue rights to Colorado River water separately.
Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said about 40 percent of Hopi families have water hookups in their homes. The rest still haul water because some villages have no water system and others do not have full sanitation facilities.
“We all agreed to what we placed before Kyl,” he said. “We’re just happy that we’ve come to a point we can look forward to better services for our people.”