SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Jason Chaffetz have introduced legislation to create a settlement between Utah and the Navajo Nation over Colorado River water rights.
After 13 years of talks, a federal negotiations team review and the Navajo Nation Council's approval, the state and tribe agreed to resolve the water rights claims through a negotiated settlement rather than the courts.
The bill authorizes the federal government to spend up to $198.3 million for Navajo water projects, including wells, pipelines and water treatment plants. Utah would pitch in $8 million. In exchange, the legislation would limit the legal exposure and litigation costs of the federal government and the state.
“This result took a great deal of time and commitment, and I’m grateful so many willing partners stepped up to the plate to address this complex issue," Hatch, R-Utah, said in a statement.
Navajo Nation Speaker of the House Lorenzo Bates said the legislation is a great step forward in bringing safe, clean drinking water to Utah Navajo communities.
The settlement is a win-win for the nation and the state, said Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.
"Consequently, we are looking forward to working with Sen. Hatch, Rep. Chaffetz and the rest of the Utah congressional delegation in moving this historic legislation through Congress," Begaye said in a statement.
The settlement would give the tribe 81,500 acre-feet annually of Utah's unused share of water. The Navajo Nation could draw the water from aquifers, as well as the San Juan River and its tributaries. It also could divert water from Lake Powell, though it has no plans to do so, the Associated Press reported last year.
The Navajo communities in Utah currently use only a fraction of the water allocated in the settlement. But the agreement would allow for economic development and leasing of water to entities off the reservation, and the tribe wouldn't lose any water it did not put to use, according to the settlement.
Chaffetz, R-Utah, said the settlement will improve the quality of life for Utah Navajos.
"With Navajo water rights finally quantified, they can now benefit economically from a resource that is rightfully theirs. The water infrastructure that will be built as a result of this agreement is long overdue," he said.
Gov. Gary Herbert said the agreement did not happen overnight.
"This deliberative process has led to a fair and equitable agreement which will benefit Utah, the Navajo Nation, the federal government and all water users in the Colorado River Basin alike," Herbert said in a statement.