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Navajo water project working to secure its path

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 2:37 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2008, file photo, an angler catches a trout on the San Juan River near Navajo Dam, N.M. The massive federal Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is scheduled to begin construction this year, eventually bringing San Juan River water to arid tribal lands where thousands of residents still don't have running water. But concerns about destruction of vegetation, access to roads, and the animosity Navajo residents sometimes feel about being passed over by water and power lines is complicating the process.   (Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press) FILE - In this Sept. 14, 2008, file photo, an angler catches a trout on the San Juan River near Navajo Dam, N.M. The massive federal Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is scheduled to begin construction this year, eventually bringing San Juan River water to arid tribal lands where thousands of residents still don't have running water. But concerns about destruction of vegetation, access to roads, and the animosity Navajo residents sometimes feel about being passed over by water and power lines is complicating the process. (Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Jimmy Detsoi touted a proposal that he thought would get unanimous support from people in a small Navajo community where raising livestock is synonymous with culture and tradition, the advent of the massive federal Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

He had identified nine residents with livestock grazing permits on a patch of northwest New Mexico land that is in the path of the 280-mile, $1 billion pipeline project that will bring water closer to thousands of Navajos on the eastern side of the reservation.

More than 40 percent of Navajo residences across the 27,000 square-mile reservation still do not have running water, and many have the arduous task of hauling water miles for basic uses like cooking, washing and drinking. The pipeline also will bring water relief to the city of Gallup, N.M., and parts of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

Detsoi, the grazing official in Twin Lakes, N.M., was seeking approval from the permit holders for the pipeline to cross their lands.

One refused.

The man told tribal officials that the destruction of vegetation and being unable to access a road would cause too many problems.

The start of project construction this year is dependent on completion of various permitting, land acquisition and contract activities.

Tribal officials are hesitant to use eminent domain, which allows the tribe to seize property for economic development, against grazing rights holders because it brings back harsh memories of when the federal government pushed Navajos off their land and forcibly relocated some of them.

While consent is preferred, Navajo President Ben Shelly has warned that he will enforce eminent domain along the project that is on the fast track by President Barack Obama's administration and came as the result of years of negotiation on tribal water rights.

"All the other community members have said yes," said Shelly spokesman Erny Zah. "It's going to come down to what the community wants, rather than one individual."

Said Detsoi, "I'm trying to make my people understand. We're going to be running out of water sooner than expected. So in order to get more water, it's better to have that water line in place so everyone will benefit from it."

The animosity residents sometimes feel for being passed over by previous water and power lines also can complicate projects on the reservation.

The right to graze livestock is sometimes treated as land ownership, which doesn't exist for tribal members on the reservation because the land is held in trust by the federal government.

Detsoi's counterparts who represent communities along the pipeline's path also will have to identify the numerous grazing permit holders. Those who don't support the project will have money set aside for them as compensation but they can choose not to take it in a sign of opposition, said Jason John, a hydrologist with the tribe's Division of Natural Resources.

To Detsoi, grazing permit holders aren't giving up much by allowing the water pipeline and could benefit from the grass seed that's planted as part of reclamation.

"A lot of people think they own the land," he said. "We've been trying to tell them, we don't own the land. The land still belongs to the government."

Legislation passed by Congress in 2009 settled Navajo water rights claims in the San Juan River Basin and authorized a pipeline to serve Gallup and Navajo communities in New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The project will divert 37,764 acre-feet of water each year from the San Juan River and a reservoir, and send it through treatment plants to meet the water needs of 250,000 in American Indian communities by 2040.

The project was among 14 that Obama's administration selected for expedited review as part of the president's effort to more quickly approve job-creating infrastructure projects. The project will build two water treatment plants, 24 pumping plants and numerous water regulation and storage facilities on and near the Navajo reservation, where employment hovers around 50 percent.

The first four miles of pipeline are scheduled to be laid this spring, on a different section that originally intended.

Rather than starting at the river west of Farmington, N.M., the first phase of the project will be in Twin Lakes, drawing from an aquifer beneath the community and sending the groundwater through the city of Gallup's water system to Navajo towns on the outskirts of Gallup.

"What we're trying to do is get water to people as quickly as we can," said Barry Longwell, of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Four Corners Consultation Office. "There's a surplus of water within that Twin Lakes area. We want to tie into existing wells there."

Gallup-area residents will see water from Twin Lakes in about a year if the schedule holds, but water from the San Juan River wouldn't flow through the pipeline for another six years or more, said John.

The tribe's utility has about 1,400 water customers in the Gallup area, and the supply can run short from high use in the summer or with waterline breaks, said Navajo Tribal Utility Authority spokeswoman Deenise Becenti.

"Any increase in the supply will indeed be a blessing," Becenti said. "There are families still without running water. There are a number of people moving back to their home communities, and there is continued talk of promoting and increasing water development. All of these issues will require an abundant supply of water."

The lone holdout in Twin Lakes, Bob Sandoval, told officials he doesn't have a water line to his home, although he applied in 2009.

John said tribal officials will support Sandoval's application, which must receive final approval from Shelly's office, but not as a condition of securing his approval for the project.

Sandoval did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press.

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