As politicians jockey for position in upcoming Arizona elections, some Arizona tribes are still reeling from a thorny battle over water rights – and they’re hoping the candidates will keep their water future in mind.
Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders are still working on various fronts to salvage pieces of the Navajo Hopi Little Colorado River Water Right Settlement Act of 2012, with no clear path in sight. The proposal touched off reservation-wide protests at both tribes last spring, when it was introduced as Senate Bill 2109 and sponsored by senators Jon Kyl and John McCain. In the end, the Navajo Tribal Council voted it down.
Based on that decision, the Navajo and Hopi interests in the Little Colorado River, for now, fall back into the realm of Arizona tribal water claims likely to be decided in court. According to information provided by the Arizona Department of Water Resources, water settlements have been reached in the past in Arizona for the Ak Chin Indian Community, the Tohono O’odham Nation, the Salt River-Pima Maricopa Indian Community, Fort McDowell Indian Community, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, the Zuni Tribe and the Gila River Indian Community, although the Gila settlement has met with friction in the Gila River Adjudication Court, which has the final say. Pending settlement negotiations involve claims by the White Mountain Apache, the Yavapai Apache, the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kaibab Paiute, one district at Tohono O’odham – and the Hopi and Navajo. Still more tribes have various water claims that aren’t yet in negotiation, including the Pascua Yaqui, San Carlos Apache, San Juan Southern Paiute and Tonto Apache.
Erny Zah, spokesman for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly who openly supported the failed settlement on the Little Colorado, said he’d like to see a political landscape that will continue to prioritize Indian water settlements.
“I hope that if Barack Obama gets re-elected that there will be a representative that’s in favor of Indian water settlements,” he said. “We have a president in place who’s willing to sign anything we agree to, and that hasn’t always been the case in the past.
“He’s already signed off on more Indian water settlements than any other president.”
Micah Loma’omvaya, chief of staff for Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, agreed: “The Obama Administration has been very open and engaged in consulting with tribes,” he said. “The atmosphere has been a little more friendly toward trying to get a settlement.”
After months of wrangling between the Navajo and Hopi leadership and the grassroots groups that opposed SB 2109, they may finally agree on something there.
“Mr. Obama … has been one of few presidents that have really had the best interests of Natives at heart,” said Elsa Johnson, a Navajo grassroots activist with Diné Water Rights, one of seven activist groups that led the charge against SB 2109.
Johnson is also rooting for Richard Carmona, the Democratic former U.S. Surgeon who is running for Arizona’s open seat in the U.S. Senate, partly because she’s genuinely impressed with him as a person and a candidate. But it’s also because she believes “Mr. Flake has been ordained by Jon Kyl to maintain the Republican rhetoric.” Johnson feels certain that any Republican will automatically want to continue the status quo by, for example, helping the Navajo Generating Station avoid costly upgrades to rein in its pollution.
“It’s like, ok, never mind that we’re sick. Never mind all this environmental impact,” she says. “If all the Natives in Arizona could vote for Carmona, my goodness, I think that would really, really help us in every aspect, not just the environment: health, social programs, anything and everything having to do with the youth.”
Johnson said besides the unsavory concessions to Peabody Coal and the Navajo Generating Station that were included in the failed settlement, she and other activists were suspicious of the infrastructure promises by the Republican senators. “It’s the pipelines that they keep luring us with,” she said. “Kyl was the one who said it would cost $300 million for three pipelines, two for the Navajo and one for the Hopi. One pipeline’s going to cost over $300 million.”
Johnson maintains that it “just didn’t even make sense for us to waive our aboriginal water rights forever.”
“We’re not just looking at today, we’re looking seven generations ahead,” she said. “We always have to think in that term, I think. I hope we get a Democrat in the Senate; I think we would have much better results in anything we attempt.”
Numerous e-mails and phone calls went out to the Carmona and Flake campaigns seeking comments for this story; none were returned. Ann Kirkpatrick is the House of Representatives candidate in Congressional District 1, which includes constituents from 12 Arizona tribes. Her staffers said she was also too busy to comment, but campaign spokesperson Jennifer Johnson e-mailed a brief statement about SB 2109:
“It seems that one of the reasons SB2109 failed is that it lacked grassroots support across the Nation. For a settlement to be successful, it needs grassroots support. And that requires an intensive outreach and information-sharing effort.”
Kirkpatrick is also widely recognized as the national candidate who has spent the most time visiting Arizona tribes in her district.
Zah, Shelly’s spokesman, said it may well be that candidates don’t want to talk about water settlements, at least on the campaign trail.
“It’s just a sensitive, controversial subject that wouldn’t lend itself to much discussion,” he said. “It’s a subject where people have planted their feet and it’s one way or the other. It’s going to need a lot of tact and understanding from all the parties involved. One little wrong move, and you’ve got somebody not coming to the table.”
He said sooner or later, someone will have to rise to the challenge.
“Arizona is pushing the point of needing water like nobody else,” he said. “Give it five or 10 years and I guarantee it’s going to be a hotter topic than it is now. When people’s grass dries up and people can’t fill up their swimming pools in Phoenix, that’s when the topic of water rights will go to the forefront.”