U.S. spends $3.9 billion on water for others
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK — In the past four years, the Bush administration spent $2.3 billion on water infrastructure in Iraq, $1.6 billion on water-related issues in other countries, and $2.5 billion on water rights claims in the West outside Indian Country.
On April 19, 2005, the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico executed a settlement agreement to Navajo claims of water rights in the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico.
Last year, U.S. Sen. Jeff Bingaman introduced H.R. 1970 — the Northwestern New Mexico Rural Water Projects Act — which is currently pending in Congress and would authorize the settlement and the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project to provide safe drinking water to the Navajo Nation and Gallup.
The Department of the Interior has testified against the bill, and the Office of Management and Budget has opposed funding despite the critical lack of drinking water infrastructure on the Navajo Nation. Gallup may run out of water in less than 10 years.
The federal government is expected to be an aggressive trustee of Indian water rights, according to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., however, Navajo is concerned that the feds’ current application of Criteria and Procedures in settlement negotiations creates incentives for the United States to oppose the interests of Indian tribes.
The Navajo Nation has considerable experience with water rights settlements.
“We are currently involved in finalizing a settlement with the state of New Mexico, and we are in discussions with the states of Arizona and Utah to quantify our water rights through negotiated settlements, rather than through the litigation process,” Shirley said.
The president explained how the United States has neglected the Navajo Nation’s water rights claims to the Colorado River, and has instead pursued a wide variety of activities concerning the management and allocation of the river without consideration of the needs of Navajo.
John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund of Boulder, Colo., has worked on Indian water issues for more than 38 years. In the last three decades, he said NARF has encountered one consistent challenge: the federal government’s inability to commit adequate financial and human resources to resolving tribal water rights claims.
“For centuries, the federal government has promoted and subsidized non-Indian water rights to the detriment of vested tribal water rights,” he said. “The lack of federal commitment to developing tribal water rights is especially troubling considering the conditions we see across Indian Country.
“It is not uncommon for tribal members to drive over 50 miles to haul water for their homes, many which still have no access to electricity. It is as if Native Americans fell through the web of the federal system that is charged with ensuring our well-being under the trust responsibility.”
The federal commitment to Indian water rights settlements remains inconsistent, and the lack of federal funding plagues the settlement process, Echohawk said.
U.S. Sens. Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman have proposed creating a permanent funding mechanism for Indian water rights settlements by using the Reclamation Fund. Though the Bureau of Reclamation has adamantly opposed this move, Echohawk and others testifying before the House subcommittee urged their support.
“The federal government has an obligation as trustee to assist in the development of tribal water rights and Congress must look to create a permanent funding mechanism for tribal water settlements. ... Indian Country can no longer tolerate the lack of water and water infrastructure that has inhibited them from developing their communities,” he said.
John F. Sullivan of Salt River Project said SRP has worked with numerous tribes and stakeholders to resolve water rights disputes in a manner that benefits both Indian communities and their non-Indian neighbors.
“We are continuing to work diligently towards the completion of the settlement of the claims of the White Mountain Apache Tribe to surface water and ground water from the Gila and Little Colorado River Basins, as well as the claims of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to surface water and ground water from the Little Colorado River Basin and to water from the Lower Colorado River.
Sullivan said many water basins in the West are already over-appropriated. “As growth and drought persist, constructing water budgets for future settlements that are operable for all the parties involved becomes increasingly complex.”
In addition, the inability to fully fund projects prolongs construction and raises the total price. “Non-traditional funding sources may be needed to meet the financial need,” he said.
The objective of the Navajo Nation “is to obtain a water supply that meets the needs of future generations of Navajos to live and thrive on the Navajo Nation as their permanent homeland. These efforts, whether through litigation or negotiation, require the expenditure of significant resources for attorneys and experts,” according to President Shirley.
“With the reduction in federal funds available for tribes to pursue these claims, we can no longer rely on the United States to fund the tribal efforts. We believe that Congress must set aside funds to be used exclusively for Indian water rights settlements. In the absence of such set asides, funding for water rights settlements will compete with funding for other programs out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs budget.”