Navajo water rights settlement signed into law
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Navajo Nation celebrated on Monday as President Barack Obama signed the tribe's water rights settlement into law as part of a public lands bill.
After decades of work, the tribe reached the agreement with the state of New Mexico five years ago. But the Bush administration balked at the cost of the deal, which authorizes an $870 million water pipeline in addition to securing the tribe's rights to the San Juan River.
The political landscape changed this year with Democrats in control of Washington, D.C. Though there were some hiccups, the 1,218-page Omnibus Public Land Management Act cleared the 111th Congress in record time.
"This is a grand day for the Navajo Nation," President Joe Shirley Jr. said in an interview at the White House after the signing ceremony. "It means water for our communities."
Obama, who was endorsed by Shirley and other Navajo leaders during the campaign, highlighted the tangible impacts of the settlement on the nation's largest tribe. He recognized Frank Chee Willetto Sr., a Navajo Code Talker from New Mexico who served in the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
"Because of this legislation, Frank, along with 80,000 others in the Navajo Nation, will have access to clean running water for the very first time," Obama said to applause in the East Room of the White House.
Despite the president's signature, the tribe's work isn't finished, Shirley pointed out. Congress still has to appropriate funds to construct the pipeline, which will serve communities on and off the reservation.
"We worked on this for a little over 30 years," Shirley said. "Now all we need to do is put money behind it."
The Navajo Nation isn't the only tribe that will benefit from the new law either. The bill also settles the water rights of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, whose chairman, Robert Bear, attended the ceremony yesterday.
Other provisions acquire land in trust for the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians of California, for the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians of Utah and for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.
The bill also starts the environmental process for a road through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. The controversial project will benefit the Native village of King Cove.
Another provision helps the 18 Pueblos along the Rio Grande in New Mexico assess their irrigation systems. The tribes will work with federal agencies to find resources to improve their water supplies.