From Fronteras (Ron Dungan):
A recent COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress includes assistance for Navajo Nation water development in Utah, where more than 40% of Navajo homes lack running water or adequate sanitation…
But the COVID-19 relief bill included legislation that will secure Navajo water rights, including a portion of Utah’s Colorado River apportionment.
The bill included funds for water infrastructure, as well as health, education and transportation needs.
From The Salt Lake Tribune (Zak Podmore):
In June, the Senate unanimously passed the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act, a long-awaited piece of legislation aimed to do just that for the Utah portion of the reservation. The legislation would recognize the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre feet of water from the Colorado River basin in Utah — enough to meet the annual needs of an estimated 160,000 typical American households. It also would settle the tribe’s current and future water rights claims and provide $220 million to build much-needed water projects in San Juan County.
Despite its bipartisan passage, outgoing President Donald Trump threw the entire funding and relief package into uncertainty Tuesday night when he sharply criticized it as “wasteful and unnecessary.”
Over 40% of Navajo Nation homes in San Juan County — where tribal water rights have never been formalized — lack running water and many residents have to fill containers at public taps, a time-consuming and expensive process. Others rely on water delivery from nonprofit organizations.
The bill, made more urgent by the pandemic, garnered bipartisan support after nearly 18 years of negotiation. Every member of the Utah delegation to the House of Representatives, three Republicans and one Democrat, cosponsored it, and the public appeared to back its premise as well…
But months passed and nothing happened. Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, put out a joint news release in October urging the House to pass the bill. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez spoke to a water conference at Colorado Mesa University in November, and worried that if the legislation did not go to a vote in the House before the end of the year, it could continue to founder in Congress like it has since first being introduced by then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2016.
On Monday, however, the legislation finally saw renewed life when it was included in the massive Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a $2.3 trillion spending bill that includes $900 billion in coronavirus relief and a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package. The legislation is now waiting for Trump’s signature.
“This is truly a historic milestone for the Navajo people and the state of Utah,” Nez said in a statement Monday. “For years, Navajo leaders have advocated for the passage of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act to provide clean water for our people that reside in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. The COVID-19 pandemic has punctuated our critical need for more clean water resources to keep our people safe and healthy.”
Nez thanked the bill’s advocates in Congress, including Romney, McAdams and Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, as well as Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the state’s governor-elect.
From Audubon (Jennifer Pitt):
For decades, too many Native American tribes in the Colorado River basin have been denied their fair share of water. Too many families on too many reservations have not had the access to clean water that most Americans enjoy. Today, Congress took a step in the right direction with the Navajo-Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, a bill included in the large omnibus package, the final legislative act of 2020. Audubon supported this settlement and its many benefits including:
Long-needed water infrastructure for citizens of the Navajo Nation in Utah, as well as access to freshwater and wastewater facilities
Affirmed allocation of 81,500 acre-feet of water for the tribe in Utah
More than $200 million from the federal treasury and $8 million from the State of Utah to develop infrastructure for water services on the Navajo reservation in Utah
The right to lease their water off reservation (a right currently denied other tribes in the Colorado River Basin)
Final settlement of all claims for the Navajo Nation in Utah, avoiding the need for future litigation.
As climate change impacts increasingly threaten the Colorado River, the Navajo-Utah settlement will make certain that underserved communities on the Navajo reservation have access to water. Moreover, it ensures the Navajo can realize the full benefit of their water rights as they choose, for their families, their economy, and for the Colorado River and every living thing that depends on it, including hundreds of species of birds.
Audubon will continue to advocate for sensible water legislation and policies at the local, state, and federal levels.