Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye testifies at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in Washington, D.C., on December 6, 2017. Photo: Navajo Nation Washington Office

Trump administration throws up hurdles for first new tribal water rights settlements

The Trump administration is expressing major concerns about the first new tribal water rights settlements being considered in Congress.

Even though the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs rushed through a hearing on the settlements on Wednesday in order for members to get to votes, there was plenty of time for a senior official from the Department of the Interior to outright oppose a bill for Hualapai Tribe and to call for additional work on another for the Navajo Nation.

"The department, for the record, does support Indian water rights settlements," Alan Mikkelsen, the second-highest ranking leader at the Bureau of Reclamation, told the committee during a very brief opening statement.

But Mikkelsen, in his written testimony, said the new administration "cannot support" S.1770, the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act. He questioned the "scope and size" of a project that would bring water to the Hualapai Reservation, parts of which lie in difficult to reach areas of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

He also raised significant doubts about the $173.6 million price tag of the settlement. Of that amount, $134.5 million would go toward the pipeline but Mikkelsen believes the costs would likely run higher, something that in fact has happened with another tribal water project in the state.

As for S.664, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, Mikkelsen offered the department's general support for settling the Navajo Nation's water rights in Utah. But he cautioned that the new administration doesn't know whether it will agree to the $198.3 million cost of that deal either.

"We must be mindful of what funding the federal government can provide in assisting communities to to resolve these long-standing disputes," Mikkelsen said.

He added: "Just as a general manner, the higher state and local contribution, the better."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Legislative Hearing December 6, 2017

The doubts came after Republican lawmakers -- including a close ally of President Donald Trump -- pushed strongly for the settlements.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who joined the president in Utah earlier this week for the dismantling of the Bears Ears National Monument, made a special appearance at the hearing to advocate for S.664. He noted that the Navajo Nation and Utah negotiated for more than 13 years to resolve claims on the Colorado River.

"Both parties invested significant time and resources on this issue," Hatch said.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) made a special appearance as well. His bill, S.1770, settles long-standing claims by the Hualapai Tribe to the Colorado River.

"This is critically important to have some surety moving ahead," said Flake, who will be stepping down next year after frequently sparring with Trump on political issues.

The other sponsor of the bill is Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former two-term chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Though he remains well-liked among tribal leaders in the state, his popularity has fallen among others amid frequent clashes with the president.

Against the political backdrop, leaders of the two tribes focused on the tangible benefits the water settlements would bring to their communities.

Enactment of S.1770 represents an "opportunity to bring water to a very, very rural area and without it, we wouldn't be making strides to give our tribe that economic development," Hualapai Tribe Chairman Damon Clarke said. Settlement negotiations took about seven years.

"This bill will provide water to 40 percent that do not have water in the state of Utah, members of my nation. It is something that we have waited for for years," Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye told the committee. Many Navajo citizens in Utah have to haul water to their homes, he noted.

The states of Arizona and Utah also support the respective settlements, officials said at the hearing. Although they won't be contributing as much as the federal government, they defended the need to resolve the long-standing claims in order to help tribes and surrounding communities develop their economies.

When tribal, local and state contributions are considered together, Arizona is contributing more than $44 million, said Thomas Buschatzke, the director of the state's Department of Water Resources. That represents about 25 percent of the costs of S.1770.

S.664 requires Utah to contribute $8 million and has already set aside $2 million in anticipation of the settlement becoming law, Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox (R) said.

"In my small town, we have a saying that whiskey's for drinking and water's for fighting," Cox said. "I'm so grateful that we are not fighting about this one."

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Receive Testimony on S. 664 & S. 1770 (December 6, 2017)

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