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American Prospect: Hopi, Navajo tribes battle for water rights

Filed Under: Environment | Law
More on: arizona, doi, hopi, navajo, water

"At the Department of the Interior in Washington last week, where a tarpaulin banner on the portico façade encouraged visitors to “Celebrate Native American Heritage Month,” Secretary Ken Salazar commemorated our country’s original occupants in classic fashion: he hosted a land dispute between Native Americans and colonizers.

At issue were Navajo and Hopi water claims to the Little Colorado River, an aquamarine tributary meandering through 300 miles of clay bluffs just east of the Grand Canyon. For 40 years, the Navajo and Hopi tribes have leased land and water to Peabody Western Coal Company, which mines on the Navajo Reservation, and the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), which burns the coal to power cities in Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California. While the tribes have senior claims on the river, nearly half of the West Virginia-sized reservation lacks running water. People are forced to haul their water in 55-gallon drums from coin-operated filling stations while Navajo resources drive the water pressure in millions of homes hundreds of miles away from the reservation.

“Many of our families live in third-world conditions, and they’re tired of that,” said Eric Descheenie, the chief of staff of the Navajo legislative branch.

For decades, Navajo attorneys have tried to leverage their water claims to get federal money for water delivery. At the beginning of this year, the coal industry appeared ready to strike a deal. The Navajo-Hopi Water Rights Settlement Agreement proposed giving the tribes all of the unappropriated water in the stream, and unlimited access to two aquifers of groundwater. The agreement also restricted new users from pumping the aquifers in range of the tribes, and prohibited any new users on the Little Colorado. The most significant aspect of the agreement, though, was $350 million of federal money to develop a water delivery system for thousands of homes on the reservation. In the language of water-claims attorneys, that money meant converting “paper water rights” into “wet water rights.” In return, Peabody and NGS obtained certainty that they could pump the river for “time immemorial.”"

Get the Story:
Under Water Pressure (The American Prospect 11/22)

Related Stories:
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Navajo Nation Council to take up Arizona water rights settlement (7/5)
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