Navajo Nation President Testifies before Congress on Protecting Utah Navajo Water Rights

President Russell Begaye testified in support of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act of 2017

Published December 7, 2017

WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testified Wednesday in support of S. 664, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act of 2017. The Navajo Nation Council approved the settlement agreement in January 2016. It reflects over a decade of negotiations involving officials from the Navajo Nation, the State of Utah, and since 2013, the federal government.

President Begaye thanked Sen. Orin Hatch (R-Utah) for his leadership in sponsoring this important legislation, Governor Gary Herbert, Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, and their staff and advisors for all their work to make this settlement a reality.

The bill would authorize the Secretary of the Interior to execute, on behalf of the United States, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Agreement. Additionally, the bill provides $211 million in funding for water supply infrastructure intended to address short-term and long-term water development needs in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

“The work that has gone into this settlement has resulted in an agreement that is just and equitable to all parties,” said President Begaye

The Settlement would result in a win-win for the Navajo Nation and the State of Utah by quantifying the Navajo Nation’s water rights in the Upper Basin of the Colorado River in Utah in a manner that will benefit not only the State of Utah and the Navajo Nation, but the federal government and all water users in the Colorado River basin.

Reflecting on the fact that an estimated 40 percent of Navajo households in Utah have to haul water, often in non-sterile containers from unsanitary water sources, President Begaye said, “Hauling water is a way of life on the Navajo reservation and has enormous economic and social costs. The only way to improve this situation is through water infrastructure.”

Under the Settlement Agreement, the Navajo Nation has the right to divert and store up to 435 cubic feet per second and deplete 81,500 acre-feet per year of surface and groundwater from the Upper Colorado River Basin in Utah. “The water development fund authorized in S. 664 will be used to build water infrastructure that will allow the Navajo Nation to put its water rights to use and deliver water to Navajo communities,” said President Begaye.

Flexibility is built into the settlement, and once funds are appropriated under this Act, actual project design, construction, and management will be the full responsibility of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation has the institutional capacity to manage these funds effectively, to adapt to unforeseen developments, and to produce results demanded by the Navajo people. This fund-based approach to settlement is consistent with tribal self-determination and appropriate for this settlement.

Deputy Commissioner of Reclamation Alan Mikkelsen, while making clear that there are still some issues that require work, stated that “the Department [of the Interior] supports the goals of the settlement which include quantifying the reserved water rights attached to the Utah portion of the Navajo reservation and facilitating the development of essential municipal water systems that will provide a reliable quantity and quality water supply for the communities within the Reservation.”

Utah Lt. Governor Spencer J. Cox testified that “with these facts in mind we wholeheartedly support Senator Hatch’s Senate Bill 664 which embodies the Utah/Navajo settlement and we ask you to quickly pass the bill. This bill and the process that lead to it is the essence of cooperative federalism. The states and tribal governments with input and assistance from the federal government have worked together to find an equitable solution to pressing challenges. This is the kind of agreement we should celebrate and try to do more often. Again we recommend the committee act favorably on this bill.”

“This legislation, if enacted, will help the Navajo Nation build vital infrastructure – infrastructure that will help our next generation to be our most successful generation yet,” concluded President Begaye.

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