FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Navajo and Hopi lawmakers are soon expected to decide the fate of a water rights settlement that could end years of litigation or send the tribes back to court.
The settlement recognizes the rights of the tribes to groundwater within the Little Colorado River basin and gives the Navajo Nation nearly three-fourths of surface water from the river. The tribes would waive further claims to the river system in exchange for groundwater delivery projects paid for by the federal government.
U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has introduced legislation to approve the settlement, but it won't move forward without the blessing of the tribes. Another 30 entities, including the state of Arizona, its major water providers, cities and ranchers also would need to sign off on it.
Hopi lawmakers could take a stance on the settlement as early as Friday. The Navajo Nation Council is expected to vote sometime this month. With those decisions looming, tribal members who support and oppose the settlement are working to persuade lawmakers to see things their way.
The Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission isn't trying to change the mind of anyone who already opposes the settlement. Instead, it is reaching out to people who are still on the fence or have heard little about the deal, said Commissioner Leo Manheimer. An opportunity for economic development, protection from overpumping by off-reservation water users, and reliable drinking water are among the commission's selling points.
"We did give on a few things, Hopi did, everybody did. That's why you call it a settlement," Manheimer said. "It's good for us in the long run when you look at how we can actually accommodate growth, accommodate the future of the Navajo people."
A sticking point for opponents has been an option in the settlement that would provide the Navajo Nation capital with water from the Colorado River if the tribe extends the lease for a coal-fired power plant. Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, said opponents feel like the settlement is rushed, bows to corporate interests, and they don't see Kyl as their champion in Congress.
"We're in a place of 'take it or leave it,'" she said. "We don't need to be in that position."
But Navajo water rights attorney Stanley Pollack has said that failure to extend the lease under the settlement does not kill the settlement in its entirety.
Tribal leaders said Thursday that they're under pressure to make a decision by the end of June to give the settlement the best chance of passing in Congress. But some tribal lawmakers have said they're unsure of the settlement's prospects for passage without some amendments, which could kill the deal.
In a memo earlier this month, the deputy director of the Navajo Nation's Washington, D.C., office said altering the provisions related to the Navajo Generating Station or the coal mine that feeds it would be fatal to Kyl's legislation because Republicans in Congress are interested only in preserving the plant that ensures water delivery to much of Arizona.
The settlement stems from a court case in Apache County that is focused on resolving claims to the Little Colorado River. Both the Navajo and Hopi tribes are parties to the case, which has been stayed numerous times to allow for settlement negotiations.
Navajo President Ben Shelly and Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa have said they believe the settlement is the best way to provide clean, reliable water sources to reservation communities where water hauling has become commonplace. The groundwater projects are expected to cost more than $315 million.
"There's nothing wrong with hauling water," said Erny Zah, a spokesman for Shelly. "There's a great many of our people who take pride in hauling water, and there's certainly a badge of honor to knowing how to live like that. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with moving forward, turning on a faucet and getting a cup of water."
On the Hopi side, opponents argue that its lawmakers don't have the authority to make decisions on water rights for the 12 villages, which are considered autonomous. Gearon, a member of the Navajo Nation, said she acknowledges that while litigation might not result in any more water for the tribes that they are getting through the settlement, it would be worth a fight in court.
Another opponent, Marshall Johnson, agrees.
"We are for a settlement agreement that honors our historical roots that predate American laws and allow for true input from the Navajo people," he said.