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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Navajo Nation Receives Extension To Renegotiate Lake Powell Agreement With Park Service

A photo of Lake Powell in Arizona.
Lake Powell is a man-made reservoir on the Colorado River in Southeast Utah and Northwest Ariz. It is inside the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, which was visited by over 4 million people in 2019.

Lake Powell has always been a sore spot for some Navajo people, according to Navajo Nation Council Delegate Paul Begay. He said many families lost farming and grazing land when Glen Canyon was filled with water in 1963.

“I think the loss of pasture lands and land usage is what bothers our people the most,” Begay said. “And then, of course, not having any say in what was going to happen.”

That feeling of powerlessness continues today, thanks to a 50-year-old agreement regarding the co-management of Lake Powell. The Quadrilateral Agreement involves the National Park Service, which oversees the management of Glen Canyon Recreation Area and Lake Powell, as well as the Navajo Nation, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Reclamation.

It was supposed to help the Tribe benefit from tourism to Lake Powell. But Begay said the 1970 agreement has actually kept them from developing the shoreline, because the park service has jurisdiction over a buffer zone surrounding the lake.

“It states that the National Park Service will help the Navajo,” he said of the agreement. “So in our mind, that turned out to be completely opposite of what it’s supposed to do.”

The agreement was set to expire Friday, Sept. 11, but the park service agreed to a year-long extension at the request of the Navajo Nation, which hopes to renegotiate the contract to account for changes to the landscape over the past half-century and to benefit the Tribe.

The buffer zone surrounding the lake is one of the biggest issues with the current agreement, according to Floyd Stevens, a former council delegate and chapter official. It starts at the elevation of 3,720 feet, along the shoreline of the lake, and extends out for one mile on tribal land.

An illustration of the quadrilateral agreement map.
Navajo Land Department
Parcel A, purple, and Parcel B, pink, represent Page, Ariz. and Lake Powell. They were created by an act of Congress in 1958, which transferred land in southeast Utah to the Navajo Tribe. The buffer zone, yellow, extends into tribal land, green. Credit: Navajo Land Department

Technically, anything below that level belongs to the federal government, due to the 1958 legislation in which the Navajo Tribe gave up the land used to create Lake Powell and Page, Arizona. in exchange for land in San Juan County, Utah. But the water level has receded from 3,720 feet since the Quadrilateral Agreement was signed, uncovering more land that the park service now technically controls.

“The Navajo Nation, I feel, should have full jurisdiction,” Stevens said of the land on the Tribe’s side of the lake. “What we build on the solid ground on the Navajo side should be up to us.”

Stevens is part of a committee tasked with studying the impacts of the agreement and making recommendations for how it should change. The effort started in December 2018, he said, after issues with the park service failing to uphold its consultation obligation under the agreement came to light.

Stevens said the committee met monthly throughout 2019 and in the first two months of 2020, but had to stop in March, because of COVID-19. The group plans to start meeting virtually again this fall. Eventually, they will deliver their suggestions to the Navajo Nation Tribal Council, which will try to negotiate a new agreement with the park service before the agreement expires next year.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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