Following a series of public forums on a controversial water settlement involving the Navajo and Hopi tribes, opponents of the settlement and the Navajo Nation president’s office seem no closer to an agreement.
Senate Bill 2109 pertains to the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012, which aims to settle water rights in the Little Colorado River watershed, a tributary of the Colorado River in northeast Arizona. While the proposed settlement does secure all the unappropriated water in the basin for the Navajo tribe and promises water development projects for dry areas of the reservation, opponents don’t like some of the tradeoffs. For example, the water supply for one of the delivery projects relies on the extension of a lease to the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona. And another clause may restrict the Navajo Nation’s ability to sue for pollution and damage to an aquifer on which some tribal residents depend for drinking water.
Hopi and Navajo activists learned about the settlement in early April, just days before an unannounced visit to the Navajo Nation by Arizona Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, the politicians who introduced it. Angry protestors confronted Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly the day of that visit, and showed up en masse for the seven educational water forums hosted across the Nation over the past several weeks.
The settlement is not dead, but some activists believe they’ve convinced Shelly to avoid rushing a decision to meet the original May 15 deadline, while the president’s office denies it’s committed to any timeline on the decision. “To date, we haven’t heard of a hard deadline from Senator Kyl’s office,” says Erny Zah, spokesman for President Shelly, “so any claims of a delay would be presumptuous and erroneous.”
One group formed in response to the proposed settlement, called Diné Hada’ Asídí, or the Navajo Vigilant Ones, has been particularly vocal. The grassroots organization has issued several press releases criticizing key points in the settlement and even calling for the ouster of Navajo Nation water attorney Stanley Pollack, who represented the Navajo Nation in its creation. “Water rights giveaways are being done … by Pollack, President Shelly, the Attorney General (AG), and the Commission,” states a recent release, adding in a lengthy list of demands that the nation should “remove Pollack, and seek his disbarment by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.”
Pollack declines to respond to the personal attacks. “The settlement isn’t about me,” he says. “The settlement is about water for the Navajo people.” He does say that one of the group’s main claims about the settlement—that a productive but saline water source called Blue Springs would be relinquished—is untrue. According to the settlement, whatever water “hits the Little Colorado River flowing through the reservation, we have the right to use it,” he explains. “The settlement includes Blue Springs.”
Milton Bluehouse is part of Diné Hada’ Asídí. Asked about his opposition to the settlement, the former Navajo Nation president and council delegate doesn’t point to its content. Instead, he lambastes the way it was introduced to the Navajo people. “The most striking of all the activity that took place during the hearings is that this bill 2109 was entered through on February 14 … by Senator Kyl and Senator McCain,” Bluehouse says. “We didn’t hear anything about that being introduced to Congress out here. We were totally in the dark. Then all of a sudden, Senate Bill 2109 fell out of the blue sky.”
Bluehouse says many people are upset enough that they want to kill the bill, but he stopped short of saying he’s one of them. “One way or another, a settlement has to be made,” he says. “For me, I would rather sit down with non-Indians as well as Navajos who border these rivers … sit down and agree to waivers from both ends. As of now … we’re having hearings more or less after the fact. We should have been educated to this as far back as three years ago.”
Bluehouse and his fellow activists would like to see a referendum. “The most important thing is for the Navajo Nation to … ask Senators Kyl and McCain to respectfully return the package, give it back to us over here, and let us get the people involved,” Bluehouse says. “This business of water that’s claimed by non-Indians as well as Navajo, that’s got to be settled. But it’s got to be settled with the people involved, not just a few politicians.”
Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, helped organize a group of Native youth that visited Washington, D.C. in mid-April. Before she went, she’d begun to worry that perhaps she and other settlement opponents were getting too wrapped up in legalese, and risked throwing away a good deal. Following a two-hour meeting with Kyl’s legislative director, she felt she’d gained some clarity on parts of the settlement that were difficult to understand—but she still doesn’t like it. “Our organization definitely is concerned with the Navajo Generating Station and Peabody Coal being included, but I feel there’s even more I’m concerned about that doesn’t make it a good settlement for us,” she says. “I feel much better after that meeting, that what we are doing is right.”
Zah says it’s been difficult to gauge the Navajo public’s true feelings about the settlement because of the volatile nature of the protests. “The difficulty was that people seemed to be speaking from a misinformed stance,” he says. “It was more of an emotional response, more so than a rational, thought-through response.”
He complains that the public forums seemed to be swayed by the many activists who showed up for each meeting. “That was distracting for us. We wanted to hear from the local community members in each of the communities, not from the same activists who had originated from Tuba City, or Flagstaff, or wherever they were from,” he says. “We did listen to them. We took that into consideration. At the same time, we think they did a disservice by not allowing people to speak their own minds.”
He says the president’s office is moving forward on the settlement. The Water Rights Commission is still conducting meetings at various Navajo chapters to educate people about the settlement and S. 2109, and commissioners are reporting that those meetings “have actually been engaging,” Zah says. “We’re also looking to see what we can do about introducing legislation into Navajo Nation council to get the settlement approved.”
He adds that the president understands that the settlement is a difficult and complex issue, but tearing it apart isn’t likely to have positive results. “We’re talking 32 different parties in this settlement,” he says. “For us to think we are the only ones with claims, and our claims supersede and are more important than the other claims, is a little presumptive. We’re getting 72 percent of that water. Seventy-two percent of the water becomes ours if the settlement is approved. What’s wrong with that?”