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Navajo Nation to receive $220M for water infrastructure in Utah water rights settlement

By: - May 31, 2022 9:28 am

Photo via Getty Images

For years, Navajo people living on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation have gone without running water or adequate sanitation facilities. But, that’s about to change after the historic signing of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, which will provide the Navajo Nation government with Utah water rights access and federal funding for water infrastructure projects.

“These communities located in this area of Utah have been at the forefront of water insecurity and have endured years of lack of access to clean, running water.” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a press release. “This historic occasion is the product of decades of hard work and diligence of all parties.”

More than 40% of Navajo households in Utah lack running water or adequate sanitation, according to the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President. For instance, in the community of Oljato on the Arizona-Utah border, a single spigot serves 900 people. 

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“We are located on the ancestral lands of our Diné people. Since time immemorial, Diné people have resided here and have continued to create their permanent homeland and livelihood within this region,” Nez said of the Utah area. 

“Present-day, this area is home to the community of Oljato, which is one of the eight Navajo Utah communities who will directly benefit from the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Agreement,” he added.

The Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act was signed at the Navajo Welcome Center in Monument Valley, Utah, on May 27. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Utah Gov. Spencer J. Cox and Nez all signed the agreement.

During the signing event in Monument Valley, Haaland spoke to the crowd and recalled the challenges of growing up without running water in her home as a young child. She commended Navajo Nation and Utah leaders for their commitment to delivering more water resources to families and communities.

“Having modern water infrastructure is not only crucial to the health of our kids and families – it’s also important to economic opportunity, job creation, and responding to the intensifying effects of climate change,” Haaland said in a press release. 

More than 5,000 citizens of the Navajo Nation live on the Utah portion of the tribal land, according to the Department of Interior. 

Only half of the households within the Utah area of the Navajo Nation have indoor plumbing. Most of them must haul water, sometimes as far as 50 miles round-trip, the department stated.

“As we seek to strengthen Indigenous communities and support tribal self-governance, today’s action and investments from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help provide the Navajo Nation with the autonomy and flexibility to design and build appropriate water projects that will address current and future water needs,” Haaland said.

This agreement was 18 years in the making, according to the Utah Governor’s office.

“We celebrate the opportunity to bring drinking water infrastructure to the Navajo Nation and water certainty for Utah, the fastest-growing state in the country,” Cox said in a written statement.

“Sometimes the most important work done by government is done quietly on issues that don’t sound very exciting,” Cox added. 

The signing of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement is one of those times, Cox claimed, and he’s proud of his staff and the leaders who worked to make it happen.

The settlement will recognize and protect the reserved water rights of the Navajo Nation and will help bring clean drinking water to the Navajo people living in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

As part of the settlement, all current and future claims by the Navajo Nation for water rights within Utah are now settled. The Navajo Nation will now have reserved water rights to 81,500 acre-feet for current and future water use within the Navajo Nation in Utah. The federal government will pay the Navajo Nation more than $210 million and the state of Utah will contribute $8 million toward water infrastructure projects on the Navajo Nation.

“While there are no easy answers to the issue of water in the West, I am emboldened by the spirit of collaboration that made this moment possible,” Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said in a press release. “This historic agreement will bring clean drinking water to the Navajo people in Utah, and I’m grateful for all of our partners who tackle tough issues with an eye toward solutions.”

The Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act was introduced by Senator Mitt Romney in 2019 and authorized by Congress in 2020 as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. It was then fully funded by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.

“Utah leaders have long-prioritized finding a solution to bring running water and wastewater facilities to the Utah portion of Navajo Nation, including ensuring its citizens have proper water infrastructure,” Romney said in a press release. “I was proud to have helped negotiate the bipartisan infrastructure bill to make sure Utah would have a seat at the table and make good on the longstanding promise by the federal government to the Navajo Nation in Utah.”

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Shondiin Silversmith
Shondiin Silversmith

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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