Huge area water project in works
$900 million Navajo Nation water project pitched for Four Corners

A concrete barrier separates stagnant water from the free flowing waters of the Animas River below the A-LP construction site Monday. A proposed settlement between the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation for a similar project that would siphon water
from the San Juan River was unveiled on Dec. 5. /Photo by Todd Newcomer.

A new Four Corners water project
that would dwarf Animas-La Plata in terms of finances and infrastructure has been announced. A proposed settlement agreement between the State of New Mexico and the Navajo Nation for the use of water in the San Juan River Basin was unveiled last Friday. The proposal is already drawing serious heat.

On Dec. 5, a 120-page proposed settlement, including a proposed water-release schedule, court decree and congressional legislation, was released to the public. The gist of the proposed agreement is that the Navajo Nation would agree to limit its share of San Juan River water to a whopping 322,000 acre-feet per year with no future claims. Nearly $900 million in federal funding for infrastructure would be given to the tribe in exchange for the certainty. By comparison, current cost estimates for A-LP’s 120,000-acre-foot reservoir and pumping plant are now pegged at $500 million.

The majority of the funding for the Navajo project would be put to the construction of an elaborate pipeline that would siphon water out of the San Juan River in the vicinity of Shiprock and feed the eastern side of the reservation. As proposed, the pipeline would supply water to as many as 250,000 people by the year 2040. The proposed agreement also includes details of how water would be delivered to the pipeline from Bureau of Reclamation water projects including Navajo Reservoir and the Animas-La Plata Project.

New Mexico State Engineer John D’Antonio explained, “The Navajo Nation is giving up any future claims to water by settling for this amount that has been negotiated. They will also get some much-needed capital improvement dollars.”

A lawsuit to settle Navajo claims to San Juan Basin water has been in the courts since 1975. Negotiations to resolve the difference were started in 1993, and a team of federal negotiators started working on a solution approximately 15 months

Both the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico announced that they are pleased with the result. Chairman of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission Albert Hale commented, “Water will bring life to our barren lands. The settlement agreement opens a new chapter in the relationship between the Navajo Nation and
the State of New Mexico.”

D’Antonio added, “This will lend certainty to the water rights claims of the Navajo Nation, and it will lend certainty to other water rights in the basin.”

A front-end loader works on excavating the A-LP pumping station Monday. The proposed Navajo Nation water project would be almost three times the size of A-LP, drawing 322,000 acre-feet of water a year from the already over-allocated San Juan River in New Mexico./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

National Sacrifice Area

However, numerous other parties, including long-time opponents of the Animas-La Plata project, are taking a different view of the proposed settlement. Steve Cone, the Citizens’ Progressive Alliance’s A-LP coordinator, said the agreement would spell more trouble for the future of the Four Corners area. Cone said that among other things, the project would dewater the San Juan, is a thinly veiled attempt to open the door to new Four Corners power plants and would reverse efforts to aid endangered fish in the river.

“I think this is just another demonstration that the Four Corners area is being viewed as a national sacrifice area,” Cone said. “One of the reasons we think this is being rushed through is pressure from the power industry.”

Cone added that to date, the public has not been welcome to partake in the process. He said that this was particularly true when the federal negotiation team came on board in the fall of 2002.

“At the point in time when this settlement team became involved, citizens tried to get into the process,” Cone said. “We made a request back in October of last year, and we were told that we would not be welcome and that proceedings would be closed.”

Cone added that all attempts to get information about the process have been ignored and that the prescribed policy for resolving American Indian water rights claims has not been followed.

“We’re very concerned that the federal government is not following a standing policy and is instead using an approach that is fairly loose and tailored to whatever kind of special situation they seem to find themselves in,” he said.

Michael Black, of A-LP opponent Taxpayers for the Animas, agreed that the settlement process has been hidden from the public. “It’s obviously been done in secret without any public comment,” Black said. “It appears that they learned their lesson from the Animas-La Plata project.”

Black also questioned where the 322,000 acre-feet of water would come from, noting that water in the San Juan River is already over-appropriated. He said that the Navajo Nation would be given preference over many existing Northern New Mexico water users, thus irrigators along the Animas River in New Mexico could suffer.

“If you give the Navajos water, it’s got to come from somewhere,” Black said. “I suspect it will come from the irrigators on the Animas in New Mexico.”

While the settlement agreement was reached behind closed doors, a hearing is scheduled for next Monday, Dec. 15, in Farmington to gauge public input. However,
Cone said that he views the meeting as little more than a formality.

Citing the 120-page settlement as well as associated documents, Cone said, “That’s a lot of documentation to lay out in front of the public and tell folks that they have 10 days to digest it.”

Another meeting is scheduled for Jan. 5 in Shiprock.This in mind, Cone also expressed concern that the public has only these two New Mexico opportunities to comment on a giant project with impacts on Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico.

Public comments will be accepted by the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources and the Interstate Stream Commission until Jan. 15 of 2004. The Navajo Nation and State of New Mexico said they would like the settlement agreement to be up for consideration by Congress by March 1 of 2004.

More information on the proposal can be found online by going to and clicking on “hot topics.”





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