Interior Secretary to sign Navajo water settlement

Las Vegas, Nevada (AP) December 2010

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was preparing to sign a new Navajo water agreement that quantifies the tribe's water rights in the lower Colorado River basin.

Salazar and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. are slated to sign the agreement during the Colorado River Water Users Association annual conference in Las Vegas.

The San Juan Navajo Water Rights Settlement attempts to resolve a 142-year-old dispute. Government officials say it will provide a long-term clean water supply to the tribe that will improve health conditions on the reservation and pave the way for future economic development in northwestern New Mexico.

New Mexico and the tribe signed the agreement in 2005, but Congress had to enact legislation to implement the settlement. The bill initially stalled over concern for the nearly $900 million price tag.

The completed legislation recognizes about 600,000 acre-feet per year that would go to the Navajos for agriculture, industrial, municipal, domestic and stock watering purposes. An acre-foot, about 326,000 gallons, can meet the annual water needs of one to two U.S. households.

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.

Proponents say the lack of potable water has made it nearly impossible for many Navajos to pass the poverty level. Critics say the Navajo Nation would receive a large amount of water to serve a small population.

Roughly 800 attendees are expected at the conference that focuses on the water-use agreement covering California, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. The plan affects more than 30 million people living in the West.