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A Difficult Choice on Water

By LESLIE MACMILLAN | April 6, 2012, 3:39 PM


Arizona’s two senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, traveled to the Navajo reservation this week to meet with Navajo and Hopi tribal leaders about a proposed water rights accord that would settle the two tribes’ claims to the Little Colorado River system.

John McCainAssociated PressJohn McCain

Mr. Kyl and Mr. McCain have introduced a bill known as the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement, which would require the tribes to waive their water rights for “time immemorial” in exchange for groundwater delivery projects to three remote communities.

The tribes must sign off on the settlement, along with 30 other entities including Congress and the president, before the bill becomes law.

Mr. Kyl said the bill was on a “fast track” and he would like to see it pushed through Congress before this session ends. But the outcome is uncertain, as there is a disagreement within the Navajo and Hopi governments over whether or not to endorse the bill, as well as disapproval within the communities, which are pushing for more public hearings.

The settlement would benefit the two tribes by providing clean drinking water piped directly into their homes, Mr. Kyl said. There is very little surface water on the two reservations, he said, adding that most of the water that does exist is in aquifers and the tribes can’t afford to build the infrastructure necessary to gain access to it.

What the tribes would lose by settling is a crucial bargaining chip. Other parties, including Peabody Coal and two other corporations, want the water for ranching, farming and coal mining operations. Coal mining in particular uses copious amounts of water for its slurries.

The tiny Hopi reservation is completely surrounded by the much larger Navajo reservation, which covers 27,000 square miles of land over sections of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many homes lack indoor plumbing, and one out of three families on the Navajo reservation does not have access to a public drinking water system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Some wells and springs are still contaminated with uranium and other toxic heavy metals, a legacy of 40 years of mining.

In an arid region where water is scarce, some tribal leaders are in favor of settling their claims in exchange for running water. But the bill has also stirred some controversy among environmental groups and tribe members, who say that their leaders didn’t inform them about the details.

“Water is life, and when you take away our water, you take away our lives,” said Ed Becenti, a Navajo grass-roots organizer. He said that after the meeting, which took place behind closed doors, a crowd of about 200 milling outside followed the senators to their cars chanting “Kill bill 2109″ and “Leave our water alone.”

He said that Senator Kyl should “meet with the Navajo and Hopi grass-roots representation on the settlement agreement and go over it in detail.” He added, “Our tribal leaders have evidently dropped the ball on this one.”

Several environmental groups also oppose the bill. The Grand Canyon Trust, which was recently successful in halting new mining claims on federal land around the Grand Canyon, characterized the bill on its Web site as containing “several dangerous provisions that require a permanent waiver” of water rights.

Mr. Kyl acknowledges that the bill has aroused some deep-seated emotions but says that it has been widely misunderstood. “There are a lot of very smart people of good will who are trying to get these people wet water,” he said. The water the tribes have now, he said, exists mainly on paper in the form of rights to water that they cannot use.

Mr. Kyl and Mr. McCain, both Republicans, met privately with leaders of the two tribes in Tuba City on Thursday. Navajo leaders said they were working on scheduling a public meeting with the senators in Window Rock, Ariz., the capital of their reservation.

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