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Bill Would End Navajo Water Fight

By John Fleck
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Congress could act this week on legislation to settle a long-standing dispute over rights to water in northwestern New Mexico, allocating water to the Navajo Nation and authorizing funding for a major water pipeline for the eastern reaches of the Navajo Nation and the city of Gallup.
        The legislation, part of a large package of water and public lands measures, would ratify a 2005 agreement among federal officials, the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico.
        It will provide a reliable source of water for Gallup and the eastern Navajo Nation, said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who is leading the effort to win passage.
        The deal's importance to the arid Navajo Nation, where many residents do not have running water, is "huge," said Stanley Pollack, the Navajo Nation's water attorney.
        The bill takes the critical step of setting up a fund to begin paying for a pipeline down the western side of New Mexico, according to State Engineer John D'Antonio, who is pushing strongly for the bill's passage.
        The settlement is one piece of a complex water politics, policy and law puzzle being played out across the West. Federal law gives Indian communities substantial water rights, but the details of how much water is involved is largely unsettled. The result is either lengthy litigation or settlements designed to lock in a specific amount.
        Bingaman said the bill is critical to resolve uncertainty over who controls rights to the water that flows down the San Juan River. The San Juan is New Mexico's main tributary to the Colorado River — the main water artery for seven western states.
        "It will put to rest the dispute that has existed for several decades now about water rights there in northwestern New Mexico," Bingaman said in a telephone interview last week.
        Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, is responsible for assembling the Navajo settlement bill and a large number of other pieces of legislation into a single package with enough sweeteners to avoid a filibuster.
        Bingaman put the chances of the bill coming up this week during the lame-duck congressional session about to get under way at less than 50-50, but said that if it does not come up now, it would be on the agenda again as soon as Congress returns to work in January.
        The bill has widespread support from New Mexico's political leadership. It has drawn a small but vocal opposition from some environmentalists and San Juan basin farmers who charge it would remove too much water from the San Juan and hand over too much of the state's scarce river water to the Navajo Nation.
        "It would be a disaster," said Victor Marshall, an Albuquerque attorney who has led the opposition.
        The bill would acknowledge the Navajo Nation's right to 600,000 acre-feet per year of water from the San Juan — an amount equivalent to about six times the city of Albuquerque's annual water use.
        Marshall argues that the Navajos would also be free to sell the water to downstream users in California, Arizona and Nevada. State officials say the agreement gives New Mexico state government an effective veto over any such out-of-state sales.
        Under the deal, the Navajo Nation would relinquish the right to sue for what D'Antonio and others argue could be an even larger share of the river's water.
        Some Navajos have argued that the nation should not settle, thinking that they could end up with more water if they sued. But the nation's leadership has said the current agreement is the best deal, providing not only significant water rights, but also an agreement that the federal government will help pay for the pipeline needed to bring water to the scattered communities of rural eastern Navajo Nation.
        Navajo Nation attorney Pollack argued that the water legislation makes sense in the context of the sort of economic stimulus legislation Congress plans to consider during the lame-duck session.
        "My view is that building large water infrastructure is exactly what the economy needs," he said. "That's what stimulus is all about."