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Flagstaff, Ariz. • Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation approved legislation Tuesday to settle the tribe's claims to water in the upper Colorado River basin in Utah.
The bill passed 13-7 Tuesday without any debate and with few people in attendance at the Navajo Nation Council chambers in Window Rock. Lawmakers debated the settlement in executive session Monday and held a work session last week.
The settlement would give the tribe 81,500 acre-feet annually of Utah's unused share of water. The Navajo Nation could draw the water from aquifers, and the San Juan River and its tributaries. It also could divert water from Lake Powell, although it has no plans to do so.
The Navajo communities in Utah currently use only a fraction of the water allocated in the settlement. But the agreement will allow for economic development and leasing of water to entities off the reservation, and the tribe wouldn't lose any water it did not put to use, according to the settlement.
The bill needs approval from the Utah Legislature, which has passed a resolution in favor of the settlement, and the U.S. Interior Department. It would not take effect until Congress appropriates about $200 million for water infrastructure projects, including wells, pipelines, and water treatment plants.
"If the amount of water allocated is finalized, then we would support the general idea," tribal President Russell Begaye said earlier Tuesday. "We do not intend to only utilize the water for drinking or housing purposes. We would also like to see it benefit business startups, tribal offices, schools and other programs on the Navajo Nation."
American Indian water rights settlements nationwide have cost the federal government $4.3 billion, the Interior Department said. Congress enacted most of the 31 settlements, while the others came about through federal agencies or court order. Four are pending in Congress for tribes in Montana, Oregon and California, the Interior Department said.
The Navajo Nation settlement would resolve one of the largest outstanding water rights claims in Utah, officials said.
Navajos living on the Utah portion of the reservation are served by a mix of groundwater and surface water. But tribal officials say it's not good quality. Much of the groundwater is contaminated with arsenic, and it's costly to treat water from the San Juan River, said Jason John, principal hydrologist with the tribe's Department of Water Resources.
For Utah, the settlement provides certainty in planning for future water uses, said Boyd Clayton, deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Rights. The settlement's share for the Navajo Nation is not being used by the state and is flowing down the river, he said.
"We feel like we gave up a fair share of water," Clayton said. "We're putting some money in the settlement to actually develop projects so they can physically get drinking water."
Utah agreed to chip in $8 million, some of which already has been set aside.
The pact faced little opposition publicly, a stark difference between water rights negotiations in Arizona and New Mexico. Navajo efforts to secure water from the lower Colorado River basin in Arizona and the Little Colorado River through settlements have failed. Navajo lawmakers who represent communities in the lower Colorado River basin in Arizona were among those who voted against the Utah settlement Tuesday.
A massive pipeline project in New Mexico that would draw from the San Juan River is moving forward under a settlement, although non-Indian water users have an appeal pending in the state Court of Appeals.
The Navajo Nation's alternative to settling in Utah would have been to take its case to court.
"People will say, 'Let's wait, things will get better,'" said John, the tribal hydrologist. "That's one opinion, but the facts right now show there will be more demand on these water supplies in the future."