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Senate Panel OKs Navajo Water Deal

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    A U.S. Senate committee approved a deal Wednesday to build a water pipeline to waterless Navajo communities in western New Mexico and resolve a legal debate over the Navajo Nation's share of the region's water.
    "It will settle the dispute about water rights there on the San Juan River," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the legislation's chief architect.
    The bill would provide the necessary federal blessing for the complex water rights agreement, worked out between New Mexico and the Navajo Nation in 2005.
    "I think it's a big step forward," Navajo President Joe Shirley said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I can't begin to tell you how important it is."
    The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the bill unanimously. But committee passage is only the first of a number of steps required, Bingaman explained in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon.
    The bill still needs full Senate passage, which could come as early as June. A companion bill also must pass the House.
    The project also requires $50 million in matching funding from the state of New Mexico.
    The bill has been a priority for the Navajo Nation, where an estimated 40 percent of households do not have running water.
    The federal government would pay for a water pipeline to supply the area. The Navajo Nation would still be responsible to get water from the main pipeline to the Navajo communities scattered across the rugged desert country.
    The measure also guarantees the Navajo Nation substantial water rights from the San Juan River. In return, the Navajo Nation agrees not to go to court demanding even more water.
    The deal has widespread support among New Mexico political leaders, but has drawn opposition from a small but vocal group of San Juan River irrigators who say the agreement gives the Navajo Nation too much water.
    There have been concerns that the settlement would stall because of the difficulty in finding enough federal money to pay for the pipeline, which preliminary estimates suggest could cost more than $1 billion.
    Bingaman said he believes he has found the money in a federal account set aside to pay for water projects in the West. The bill passed Wednesday would allocate $120 million per year over the next 15 years for the Navajo-Gallup project and other similar water deals around the West.