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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.

Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Could Help Get Farmers In San Juan County Back In Business

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Kate Greotzinger
Harold Skow (left) shows engineer Shem Liechty the fields where he used to grow apricots, watermelons, pumpkins and squash before the pipe he used to move water cracked.

On a recent October afternoon, Sunshine Mustache surveyed her father’s farm on the Navajo Nation, along the San Juan River. The corn stalks in the field have withered after the summer harvest, which produced just enough food to feed their family.

She said her father and uncles have to haul water from a nearby windmill for the farm because their pump broke a few years ago.

“Every day, like every two to three hours,” she said. “Once [the tank] empties out then they go back for another load. So they spend all day hauling water, just to get this garden going.”

Mustache’s father is one of hundreds of Navajo farmers who could benefit from the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement, which contains $210 million for water infrastructure development. It passed the U.S. Senate this summer and is now stuck in the House of Representatives.

Despite the delay, some groups are already making plans for how that money could be used when the settlement passes. Mark Maryboy, a prominent Navajo politician in Utah, is working with Shem Liechty, Vice President of the Midvale engineering firm Brown and Caldwell, to create a needs assessment of farmers in the Utah Navajo strip.

Liechty has visited over 50 farms so far, including Mustache’s, in order to put together a plan for infrastructure development. He marks the location of the farms he is visiting with a mapping app on his phone and collects the farmers’ contact information. He said he is not being paid for his work on this project, but hopes his firm will be hired to do some of the development work when the settlement passes.

“We can help the farmers lay out specific plans and cost estimates that they can then take to the board that will govern that settlement fund, and be able to apply for funding to do something for their farms,” he said. “So, it’s just enabling them to be successful.”

He said most of the money in the settlement will be used to bring drinking water to houses, but that some could also go toward agricultural development.

“There are a lot of projects that with just a little funding, $10,000 to $20,000, could really get a lot of these small farmers back in business,” he added.

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Kate Greotzinger
Mark Maryboy asks Sunshine Mustache about her family farm along the San Juan River. Mustache’s family hauls water for the farm since their pump broke.

Most of the farmers along the San Juan River have access to water but need pumps and pipes to bring it up to their land. Farms further south struggle from a lack of water altogether, according to Cynthia Wilson, an employee of the nonprofit Utah Diné Bikeyah. She lives in Oljato, near Monument Valley, and has been working with Maryboy and Liechty on the needs assessment.

“A lot of the farmers here are dependent on the Oljato Wash and natural spring waters,” Wilson said. “But those have dried out because of invasive species, like Russian olive, and drought.”

Getting water to those farms will be harder, but not impossible, according to Liechty. He said the Navajo Nation is already planning to build a large pipeline to move water from the San Juan River to Oljato, and some of the water could be diverted to farms in the area.

Liechty said the Navajo Utah Commission, a legislative committee of the Navajo Nation Council, paid his firm to do a drinking water needs survey a few years ago that was used in the settlement negotiations.

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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