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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 finally secures water rights as a part of landmark federal settlement

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez
Courtesy Utah Governor's Office
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says the settlement will benefit the Native families who have been at the forefront of the water insecurity issue.

In a landmark federal water settlement, several state and Navajo nation leaders signed an agreement recognizing protections of reserved water rights of the Navajo Nation Friday.

More than 5,000 members of the Navajo Nation live on the Utah side of the reservation but only about half of Navajo households in San Juan County have running water.

Those without indoor plumbing often haul water, some as far as 50 miles round-trip, from Halchita to Monument Valley. Money from the settlement will help build new water infrastructure and provide access to clean water.

Negotiations have been underway for almost two decades with failed bills and delays in funding.

Former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, attempted in 2016, and then again in 2018. But the bills failed. In 2019, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT, reintroduced the legislation and it finally passed Congress in 2020. He’s been negotiating ways to fund the settlement since then.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said their water problems were further exacerbated by Utah’s extreme drought and the pandemic.

Several state lawmakers and Navajo Nation leaders got together Friday morning, May 27, 2022, at Navajo Nation Welcome Center in Monument Valley to sign a historic water rights settlement.
Courtesy of the Utah Governor’s office
Several state lawmakers and Navajo Nation leaders got together Friday morning, May 27, 2022, at Navajo Nation Welcome Center in Monument Valley to sign a historic water rights settlement.

There are significant water quality challenges in Navajo Utah communities, namely elevated uranium and arsenic in groundwater,” he said. “Accessing surface water is an opportunity to provide water security for the largest land-based and populated Native American tribes in the United States, spanning over 27,000 square miles with a population of more than 400,000 tribal citizens — 405,856, but who’s counting?”

While the Nation hasn’t always had the resources to be a sustainable place to live, Nez said they will continue to advocate for water rights on all fronts.

The settlement recognizes the Nation’s right to use 81,500 acre-feet of water from Utah’s San Juan River apportionment each year.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said the agreement will also bring opportunities to the Navajo Nation.

“Having modern water infrastructure is not only crucial to the health of our children and families, [but] it's also important to economic opportunity, job creation and responding to the intensifying effects of climate change,” she said. “We have serious challenges right now in the Colorado River basin as a result of extended droughts and climate change. So we have incredible resources through the bipartisan infrastructure law to help us work closely with our partners throughout the basin to respond to the urgent conditions at hand and to build resilience into the future.”

The money will come from President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law which will provide over $210 million in federal funding. Utah will contribute $8 million for water infrastructure development on the reservation.

“This is a great accomplishment. And a real need has been resolved,” Romney said. “I got asked, by the way, on the radio yesterday, they said, ‘Well, what does Utah get out of this?’ That took me a long second [to] think about. I said, ‘Well, what Utah got out of it, is the Navajos of Utah, who are citizens of our great country, are going to get running water. That's what Utah is getting.”

Overall, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law includes a $2.5 billion investment to implement the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund, which will help deliver long-promised water resources to Tribes.

Ivana is a general assignment reporter
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