FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Navajo lawmakers have approved an agreement that quantifies the tribe's water rights in the lower Colorado River basin, but it could be years before any of that water reaches tribal communities.
The settlement gives the tribe 31,000 acre-feet of water a year from the basin — an amount critics contend isn't enough — any unclaimed flows from the Little Colorado River, and nearly unlimited access to two aquifers beneath the reservation.
Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. likely will sign off on the settlement, which hinges on approval of Congress and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for pipelines that would deliver the water to the Navajo and Hopi reservations.
"Developing water infrastructure is critical to the economic development and self-sufficiency of our nation," Shirley wrote in his address to the council last month. "Colorado River water is a key to the independence we seek."
Navajo lawmakers approved the settlement 51-24 Thursday, citing a need for water in tribal communities where residents are forced to haul water long distances or draw from unsafe sources. Lawmakers opposed to the measure said the tribe should not waive any future claims to the water and should demand more.
The settlement still needs approval from the Hopi Tribe, the state of Arizona and Congress.
Opponents of the settlement rallied in Window Rock, where lawmakers were meeting in a special session to consider the agreement. The critics have pointed to what's known as the Winters Doctrine to support their claim that Navajos have a right to as much water as needed to establish a homeland.
They said the Navajo shouldn't bow to the interests of the state and its major water providers, off-reservation cities and ranches when the tribe's claim potentially is huge and could be solidified in court.
"We have inherent rights to what was here before they all came, what was ours," opponent Ron Milford said after lawmakers tabled the settlement in late September.
The settlement would end a lawsuit the Navajo Nation filed against the federal government in 2003 asserting rights to the Colorado River. The federal court and a state court working separately to settle claims in the Lower Colorado River have granted repeated stays to allow for settlement negotiations.
The Navajo Nation would get an estimated 160,000 acre-feet a year from the Lower Colorado River, though tribal water rights attorney Stanley Pollack said it would be difficult to use without storage because the flow is seasonal.
The settlement, which has been in negotiation for more than a decade, calls for a pipeline from Lake Powell to the Navajo and Hopi reservations that Flagstaff could tap in to. Groundwater projects would deliver water to the western and central portions of the Navajo Nation.
If previous Navajo water rights settlements are any indication, it could be years before Congress approves the current settlement and even longer before the infrastructure is in place for water delivery.
The Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico signed an agreement in 2005 to resolve the tribe's water claims in the San Juan River basin. Congress approved it last year, but the bill initially stalled because of the $870 million price tag.
The series of water lines that are expected to deliver clean water to 80,000 residents on the eastern side of the reservation aren't complete.