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N.M. Water Deal Faces Opposition
By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
The Bush administration opposes the proposed Navajo-New Mexico water settlement primarily because of its billion-dollar price tag, a pair of top officials said Wednesday at a Senate committee hearing.
"I think a lot of it comes back to the costs," said Robert W. Johnson, head of the Bureau of Reclamation.
The agreement would settle the Navajo Nation's claims to San Juan River water and provide a drinking water pipeline to the eastern Navajo Nation and Gallup.
The federal government would pay a substantial, but undetermined, share of the cost.
New Mexico's two senators, who helped engineer the deal, said they would push ahead despite the administration's opposition.
"I'm ready to proceed, and we'll see if you're needed," said a visibly perturbed Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., accused the Bush administration of being "AWOL" during discussions about the deal, showing up only at the last minute to object.
The deal won widespread but not unanimous support Wednesday from New Mexico regional government and water officials, who said it was critical both to providing needed water along the state's arid western edge and reducing uncertainty about the distribution of Indian and non-Indian water rights in the region.
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley also testified in favor of the deal, which he said was critical to providing water to his people and preventing litigation over San Juan River water.
Without the agreement, Shirley said, the parties could end up in a court fight.
"Congress simply cannot afford to let this settlement fail," Shirley said.
The lone exception among New Mexicans who presented testimony was the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association. The organization's chairman, Mike Sullivan, did not appear in person, but in written testimony he complained that the deal gives too much water to the Navajo Nation.
The hearing, before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Bingaman, was the latest step in the long and sometimes tortuous path the complex water deal has followed.
The Bush administration has been a reluctant participant in the discussions over much of the past six years, so the formal statements of opposition from Johnson and Assistant Interior Secretary Carl Artman were not a surprise.
The current federal estimate of the pipeline's cost is $716 million. According to Artman, though, a new study under way suggests the actual cost will be "nearly $1 billion" in addition to more than $100 million in smaller water projects associated with the agreement.
The pipeline's cost would be spread over as much as 20 years, with the federal government paying most of the tab.
The deal's primary purpose is to settle the Navajo Nation's water rights claims. Under federal law, the Navajos are legally entitled to water to irrigate their land, but the amount has never been determined.
The deal's backers say that without an agreement, the Navajo Nation could take the issue to court and end up with substantially more water. Because the San Juan is limited, they say, that could cut into the amount of water available for non-Indian San Juan users including Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which are turning to the San Juan for drinking water.
That position has widespread support among water officials in the state, including from Mark Sanchez, head of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The authority is one of the San Juan users that might lose out if the Navajos claimed more water.
Sullivan, of the San Juan water users, disagreed, arguing that if the case went to court, the Navajos probably would get substantially less water.