Hundreds of Navajo Nation homes might finally get running water

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) This file photo shows the San Juan River near Bluff, Utah, which marks the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, which was recently passed by the U.S. Senate, would for the first time recognize the Navajo Nation's rights to water in the upper Colorado River Basin in Utah, including the San Juan.

When Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez held a town hall in May to discuss the coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on the Navajo Nation and the best use of federal relief funds, he identified a clear spending priority: the construction of water lines.

More than one third of Navajo Nation households lack running water, and the problem is even worse in Utah’s San Juan County where, according to the office of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, half of Navajo Nation residents have to haul water. Families fill jugs at communal wells or buy bottled water from stores — both costly and time-consuming burdens that have become only more difficult during the pandemic.

The issue has received renewed attention in recent months, but leaders from the northern Navajo Nation were fighting to bring drinking water to the area long before the coronavirus hit, a process that requires not only finding funds to construct water mains but also securing the water rights to fill them.

The Navajo Nation’s water rights in Utah have never been formally recognized, even though the reservation was established nearly 30 years before Utah was granted statehood in 1896. In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the federal government was responsible for providing water rights along with land rights to Native American reservations, but the process for settling claims wasn’t formalized until the 1990s. Negotiations between the state of Utah, the Navajo Nation and the federal government didn’t begin until 2003.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso, whose district includes parts of San Juan County, said she and many colleagues have made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., to lobby for passage of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, the negotiated bill that was finally introduced in 2016 by then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

Hatch’s version never became law, but an updated, bipartisan bill — which was sponsored by Romney, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz. — was included in a larger piece of legislation on Native American water rights that passed the Senate last week.

Tso was thrilled to see the bill advance and said that the coronavirus outbreak on the Navajo Nation may have helped expedite its passage in the Senate.

“Water is needed on the Navajo Nation, and that is one way to fight this pandemic,” Tso said, adding that the bill would end the need for costly litigation for all parties involved.

“The Navajos, the people that are affected by this, are suffering,” she continued. “We are in a capacity to make change and bring change. ... This is a time for us to really show a collaboration between all tribes and the U.S. federal government.”

The construction of the water lines and treatment systems will be overseen by the Navajo Nation government, and it could bring water to more than 300 homes, Tso said.

The settlement recognizes the Navajo Nation’s senior right to 81,500 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River Basin each year and provides $210 million in funding for water improvements on Navajo Nation lands in southeast Utah. An additional $8 million has been approved by the state of Utah.

“This legislation has been a very long time in the making, and I am proud that the Senate has come together to see it through the finish line,” Romney said in a recent statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the Navajo Nation in our state. ... With this legislation, we will be able to provide access to water and wastewater facilities for the Navajo Nation and also provide the long-needed water infrastructure for its citizens.”

Nez said the legislation would “provide desperately needed funding for clean drinking water to our members,” a statement echoed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

“This agreement is the result of more than 15 years of good faith work between Utah leaders, the U.S. Department of Interior and the Navajo Nation,” Herbert said. “It will create clean drinking water projects for our Navajo friends and certainty for Utah’s future water needs.”

The legislation is headed to the House of Representatives next. A version of the bill was introduced by Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, in 2019, with five cosponsors, including Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart, both Utah Republicans, and Rep. Ben McAdams, a Utah Democrat. If it passes the House, it will need to be signed by President Donald Trump. The settlement would then need to receive final approval in the judicial system.

Tso urged her constituents to contact their representatives in Congress and ask them to support the bill, though she warned that patience and faith will also be required as the agreement moves forward.

“This is going to be a process that will consume some time,” she said. “But with all of our efforts going together, we will see this through.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.