Arizona, feds struggle to resolve Navajo water claims

Phoenix, Arizona (AP) 9-07
A settlement between the Navajos and New Mexico for water from a major Colorado River tributary has forced Arizona and the federal government back to the table to sort out the tribe’s other claims, which include water and money to build delivery systems.

The task is tangled in a morass of laws, compacts, political interests and a water supply already stretched too thin. But failure would thrust the issue into court and threaten water supplies for millions.

“We want to settle the Navajo and Hopi claims to the rivers in Arizona,” said Herb Guenther, director of the Arizona Department of Water Resources. “It’s one of our high priorities to get this resolved, for the benefit of not only the tribe but also for water users in Arizona, to give them more certainty for the future.”

Arizona negotiated sporadically with the Navajos until 2003, when the tribe sued the federal government, accusing it of ignoring the water needs of the reservation.

Arizona officials say they want the tribe to drop the suit before the state agrees to a settlement.

“We’ve always had the idea they’d drop the lawsuit if they had a settlement,” said Greg Houtz, counsel for the state Water Resources Department.

He said the state fears the suit could derail a long-sought shortage agreement among the states that rely on the Colorado.

What further clouded talks was the agreement reached in 2005 between the Navajos and New Mexico. The deal settled the tribe’s claims to the San Juan River, a major Colorado River tributary, and proposed a system of pipelines to help deliver water to reservation communities in eastern New Mexico.

“It was a huge accomplishment for the Navajo,” said Lena Fowler, vice chairman of the tribe’s Water Rights Commission. “We’re not meeting our water needs right now. People wonder why we don’t have economic development on Navajo. It’s because we don’t have water infrastructure. It’s a constant cycle that we have to live with here.”

Information from: The Arizona Republic,