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Editorial: To’hajiilee task force could finally get things flowing today

Today could be a big day for the 2,000 residents of the To’hajiilee village, whose residents sometimes have to travel 30 miles from the western edge of Bernalillo County into Albuquerque to buy fresh water.

The satellite community of the Navajo Nation has one working well, with residents predominantly relying on bottled water for drinking and cooking. The well water is so corrosive it eats away at the well’s components, forcing major repairs and outages. One outage lasted two weeks, prompting the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority to drive water trucks into the community.

It is shameful in 2020 any American has to live without easy access to clean water. And it is embarrassing it took a pandemic for some people to care. To’hajiilee’s water woes have been going on for years and need to be resolved.

And there is a chance talks today could start to make that happen.

To’hajiilee wants to build a 7.3-mile pipeline from the water authority’s westernmost water tank. The utility and the Navajo Nation say the tribe has water rights to the water that would flow to To’hajiilee, and tribal officials say they’re willing to pay millions to construct the pipeline and pay for a strip of easement totaling around 7 acres.

The problem has been that the pipeline would require easements from three landowners along the line. Western Albuquerque Land Holdings is the lone holdout.

WALH officials told the Journal Editorial Board this week that they have concerns about future water availability, especially if the To’hajiilee Navajo Chapter were to build a casino or other large project. WALH invested $30 million upgrading the water system in the area and has plans to develop large tracts for commercial purposes. WALH also says it invited To’hajiilee to participate when building the water system to ensure it would have the capacity to fulfill everyone’s needs. WALH says To’hajiilee declined that offer, and now WALH is concerned the system would not be able to handle the increased capacity to serve future needs of WALH and To’hajiilee.

So WALH says it has asked To’hajiilee leaders to provide documents about water availability, water serviceability and development agreements, but the tribe has not provided them. While WALH’s concern is understandable after that hefty investment, the water authority owns the system and is the entity responsible for delivering water to customers.

Bernalillo County leaders have threatened to invoke eminent domain procedures to acquire the easement from WALH, and the County Commission recently voted to allow the county to proceed with condemnation, if necessary. That’s understandable; anyone can empathize with the plight of a community simply wanting to be able to get a drink of water from their tap, much less wash their hands in a pandemic.

But it shouldn’t have to come to that.

WALH, the water authority and the county need to find an agreement that’s workable for all the parties. A task force is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. today to start seeking a resolution. The Proposed To’hajiilee Water Project Task Force’s agenda says its first meeting will be to foster communication and “get on the same page.” Invitees include County Commissioners Steven Michael Quezada and Charlene E. Pyskoty. (Interestingly, Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, who brought up the condemnation option and who represents the area, was not included on the guest list.) The program is supposed to include 10-minute presentations from To’hajiilee, Laguna Pueblo, the water authority and WALH. Representatives of the state’s congressional delegation, the Governor’s Office, state legislators and Bernalillo County are also scheduled to attend.

Having all the stakeholders in the same meeting is long overdue. Both sides have blamed the other for the lack of communication between the two. Today’s meeting won’t be the end of the water crisis in To’hajiilee, but hopefully it will mark the beginning of a solution. The meeting agenda ends with a plan to schedule another in two weeks.

We encourage all parties today to think of their neighbors and come up with a path forward that includes clean water for To’hajiilee while acknowledging WALH’s investment and future water needs.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.