Shirley, Salazar sign San Juan water rights settlement

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By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau
Gallup Independent

WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., joined Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Dec. 17 in Las Vegas to sign the historic San Juan Navajo Water Rights Settlement, which is expected to bring a $1 billion water project to the Navajo Nation, according to a press release from the president’s office.

The Navajo Nation first signed the agreement with the state of New Mexico on April 19, 2005, and President Obama signed the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act into law on March 25, 2009, authorizing the settlement. The legislation sets forth milestones that must occur for the settlement to be final, the first being execution of the revised settlement agreement by the Secretary before Dec. 31.

The latest signing, at the Colorado River Water Users Association Annual Conference in Las Vegas, fulfills a federal promise to support the Navajo people by providing a long-term sustainable water supply that will reduce the need for hauling water, improve health conditions, and provide the foundation for future economic development in northwestern New Mexico, according to the release.

“By signing this agreement today, the Obama administration is taking another step toward honoring the U.S.’s promises to Indian nations and helping communities gain access to clean, safe water supplies,” Salazar said. “This settlement honorably closes a long chapter of litigation and will bring real benefits to the Navajo people and surrounding communities.”

Shirley said he learned from his grandmother that the real monsters all people must confront are hunger, thirst, greed, jealousy, bigotry and all manner of diseases. They know no color or creed and prey upon all equally, he said.

“It takes working together to beat the beast, and that’s why I’m very thankful. Because of the settlement, it will bring water to 80,000 of my people, many of whom are elders, up in years, who are hauling water to this day. It comes from the heart when I say thank you, Secretary Salazar.”

Navajo Nation Water Rights Attorney Stanley Pollack, who worked on the settlement for 24 years as a lawyer for the Nation, called the settlement the biggest accomplishment of his professional career.

“But it’s just another step in the long road we have to go to get Navajos drinking water,” he said. “We are now on our way toward implementation of the settlement which quantifies the rights of the Navajo Nation to the San Juan River and brings drinking water to the Navajo Nation through the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.”

Shirley congratulated the Navajo Nation Council for the courage to approve the settlement agreement in 2004, and also thanked the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, the Navajo Nation Department of Justice and the Navajo Water Resources Department for their diligent work. “Nothing is ever accomplished without working together, and this step forward demonstrates that clearly,” he said.

The settlement allocates more than 600,000 acre-feet of diversions and 325,670 acre-feet of depletions per year within New Mexico from the San Juan River of the Upper Colorado River Basin for use by the Navajo Nation. Congress will appropriate funds over time for construction of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

Salazar also talked about how the Colorado River Basin serves as a model for multi-state collaboration, but cautioned that the ongoing drought requires that all stakeholders continue to choose consensus over controversy. “We must build a water policy that is inclusive of all interests – urban, agricultural, tribal, recreational, and environmental – and where all parties recognize that the other has an equal stake in keeping the river healthy,” Salazar said.

According to the Bureau of Reclamation, since 2000, Colorado River Basin reservoirs have dropped from nearly full to approximately 55 percent of total storage. Lake Mead now stands at 39 percent of capacity, lower than it has been since it was filling in the 1930s. The last 11 years have been the driest in a century of recorded history. Current projections show that if the drought conditions persist, the Lower Basin (Arizona, California and Nevada) may be subject to the first-ever domestic shortage declaration on the Colorado River as early as 2012; the likelihood of shortage conditions by 2014 is approximately 35 percent.

5 Thoughts on “Shirley, Salazar sign San Juan water rights settlement

  1. forgottenpeople on December 31, 2010 at 1:14 pm said:

    Water is the most precious resource of all! How can the Navajo Nation government blindly ignore unknown changes made in the settlement terms without their review? What are the effects of severe shortages of available water supplies? According to the Bureau of Reclamation, since 2000, Colorado River Basin reservoirs have dropped from nearly full to approximately 55 percent of total storage. Lake Mead now stands at 39 percent of capacity, lower than it has been since it was filling in the 1930s. Will the only water left to drink be contaminated due to the legacy of uranium and coal mining across the Navajo Nation?

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