Tó Bei Nihi Dziil Strongly Opposes Navajo Nation Council’s Passage of Utah Water Rights Settlement Legislation
By Colleen Cooley,
Window Rock, Ariz. – On January 26, during Navajo Nation Council’s 2016 Winter Session, delegates approved the controversial Utah Water Rights Settlement Legislation 0412-15, despite criticisms that the Navajo public was largely uniformed about the details of the lease.
“It’s not required by law,” said Navajo Nation Assistant Attorney General Stanley Pollack to Council Delegate Jonathan Perry (Crownpoint) who asked him about the lack of public participation last Friday during a workshop on the settlement.
“Given the significant implications of any Navajo water settlement, Tó Bei Nihi Dziil demands accountability, transparency, and engagement with ALL Navajo stakeholders—not only the seven Utah Chapters,” said Colleen Cooley, coalition organizer.
“The coalition encourages all Navajo citizens to protect Navajo water rights by requesting our Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye to VETO Legislation 0412-15,” said Cooley. These demands are bolstered by the rights to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989).
The Navajo Nation Council reached its 13-7-4 decision without much discussion and raised several critical concerns about the claims of the legislation and the ambiguity of the political process to reach the decision.
The loose coalition of activists and organizers, Tó Bei Nihi Dziil strongly opposes the passage of this legislation due to the subordination of Navajo water claims to existing non-Native water users in times of shortage.
“In an era of climate change, water shortage is a strong possibility in the Southwest and the settlement doesn’t address this increasingly important ecological phenomenon” Cooley said. “Climate change is affecting how we think about Indian water settlements and our lawyers need to ensure that our priority rights to the water reflect this reality.”
Within the legislation, there are several problematic claims Tó Bei Nihi Dziil identified:
1) the settlement only claims 81,500 acre-feet/year for Utah Navajo residents; 2) there is NO clear quantification of the percent of surface water and groundwater; 3) NO clear definition of “permanent homeland”; 4) NO accounting for other connected water sources and waterways—lying outside the geopolitical boundaries of Utah—such as Chinle Wash, Oljato Wash, and Laguna Wash; and 5) the Settlement only provides $5 million for agricultural water development to serve 2,500 acres--a rather low funding estimate.
Prior to this work session, Tó Bei Nihi Dziil advocates researched and compiled an informational packet outlining the unresolved issues in the legislation.
Though many delegates were receptive to these concerns and pressed Pollack to clarify these issues, they were not introduced for full Council discussion prior to the vote on late Tuesday afternoon.
The legislation passed WITHOUT adequate deliberation by the Council.
Only 10 delegates were present for the work session discussion: Benjamin Bennett, Herman Daniels, Jr., Davis Filfred, Jonathan Perry, Leonard Pete, Walter Phelps, Tauchoney Slim, Jr., Raymond Smith, Jr., Leonard Tsosie, and Dwight Witherspoon. Delegates who voted in favor of legislation passage on Tuesday include: Kee Allen Begay, Jr., Mel R. Begay, Norman Begay, Benjamin Bennett, Nathaniel Brown, Seth Damon, Herman Daniels, Jr., Davis Filfred, Lee Jack, Sr., Walter Phelps, Tauchoney Slim, Jr., Otto Tso, and Leonard Tsosie.
The full legislation was not posted on the Navajo Nation Legislative Services website until January 21, 2016, one day before the Naa’bik’iyati’ work session and one month after the Legislation opened for public comment period.
“The late distribution of the draft Legislation 0412-15 and the lack of deliberation demonstrates a questionable process of accountability to the Navajo people and to the Navajo political procedure,” Cooley said.