Monument Valley, the Navajo Nation • Utah Diné (Navajos) will get some 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from the San Juan River, after Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Department of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez officially signed the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement on Friday morning in Oljato.
The signing of the settlement between the Nation, Utah and the federal government means the tribe has waived the right of the tribe to sue for more water claims to the Colorado River system. In return, the agreement recognizes the water rights of the Nation through the Navajo Treaty of 1868 and provides money to get utilities to the tribe. There are now approximately 400,000 enrolled Diné citizens.
After two decades of negotiations amid the climate crisis and megadrought, the Navajo Nation will now have the capacity, with help from the U.S. and Utah governments, to connect thousands of homes across San Juan County with running water and other basic water needs.
The U.S. government will provide $210 million from the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act, which Sen. Mitt Romney co-sponsored, and Utah will commit another $8 million for water projects in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, which is mostly south of the San Juan River.
Many of the leaders who spoke at Friday’s signing ceremony talked about how the agreement required years of negotiations and trust-building among the three governments.
Romney, who also sponsored the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement, said that he was first approached by Nez to help resolve the controversy around the right to the water that flows through the Navajo Nation.
“So I found out this was not going to be an easy thing,” Romney said, thanking Rep. John Curtis for leading efforts to pass the bipartisan bill in the House.
In 2020, Congress passed the settlement but the bill didn’t have funding until the $550 billion Infrastructure and Investment Job Act, which passed the next year.
“By virtue of my having been part of this infrastructure team, we were able to focus on those places where the need was most immediate, and running water on the Navajo Nation, where people were suffering from high levels of COVID, that was such a high priority that Republicans and Democrats said, ‘OK, this has got to be done,’” Romney said. “And so that broke the logjam.”
Nez told The Salt Lake Tribune that eight Diné communities would benefit from the settlement, including Inscription House, Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa, which straddle the Utah-Arizona state line.
Haaland said she hauled water in buckets with her grandparents in the Village of Mesita in Laguna Pueblo, a reservation near Albuquerque. The family didn’t get water until 1975. There is no reason in 2022 that anyone should be hauling water, Haaland said.
“For too long, these poor water infrastructure conditions have burdened this community. But today, we hopefully begin to turn those challenges around,” Haaland said.
More help is on the way, Haaland said, with the Infrastructure and Investment Job Act’s investment of $2.5 billion in the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund.
“This will help deliver long-promised water resources to tribes, certainly to all their non-Indian neighbors, and a solid foundation for future economic development for entire communities dependent on common water resources,” Haaland said. “As we seek to strengthen Indigenous communities and support tribal self-governance, today’s action, and all of these investments will help provide the Navajo Nation with autonomy and flexibility to design and build appropriate water projects that will address current and future water needs.”
The Navajo Nation will “have the ability with that water to use it as they see fit. And I’m certainly hoping that it can be used, obviously, for beneficial use for the tribal members, but it also has some potential economic stimulus for the tribe,” said Cox.
Council Delegate Herman Daniels, who represents Oljato and Navajo Mountain Chapters on the Navajo Nation Council, said that the next step in the process is to plan for how communities would access the water through the settlement.
The lawmaker said that the first priority is to get water to homes, then he hopes to address long-term goals like farming and economic growth.
“This was my dream,” Daniels said. “This was everybody’s dream. It’s a dream come true.”
“What this is going to do is keep our Navajo children on the Navajo Nation,” Daniels said. “That way they do not have to go off the reservation for jobs.”
Brian Maffly added reporting to this article.