Saturday, March 15, 2008

What it’s like to be a Navajo – and how water rights could change that

Unemployment officially at 50 percent and possibly 67 percent. Per-capita income at $8,000 a year. Driving as much as 40-50 miles off the Big Rez to get water in Gallup. Living as close as you can to “Third World” existence here in the United States.

That’s why Navajos want their cut of Colorado River water.

But, will they? The 1922 Colorado River Compact only made allowance for the seven states of the river basin. No Navajos, or other Indian tribes, need apply. But, the Supreme Court’s Winters decision, in another case, gave Indian tribes the right to retroactively claim water rights. Given that Navajos live bordering both a long stretch of the Colorado and most of its third largest tributary, the San Juan River, they’re in a position to make some claims. And, the Navajos’ eligibility for those rights go back to the founding of their reservation in 1868, before most of the Colorado River Basin was settled and when only two of the current seven basin states were established as such.

Plus, the compact itself says:

“Nothing in this compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Indian tribes.”

The Navajo, like other tribes, can either sue for their rights, or negotiate compacts with various states, pending Congressional approval. The Navajos have already started down the latter path:
That’s the path that the Navajo Nation has taken in New Mexico. In 2004, the tribe and the state announced a settlement agreement that would award the Navajo 326,000 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado. (An acre-foot is enough for about two families in Phoenix or Las Vegas for a year.) The settlement also authorizes more than $800 million in federal and state money to build a pipeline that will take the water to the east side of the reservation and to the city of Gallup. The Navajo Nation is now seeking congressional approval of the deal, the tribe’s first step toward asserting its rightful claims on the Colorado.

Stanley Pollack, an assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation’s Department of Justice, says the Navajos could claim as much in Arizona, plus 100,000 acre-feet more in Utah. Out of the 17.5 million acre-feet the compact claimed the river produced, or the 15 million that is a more realistic yet still quite optimistic number, 800,000 acre-feet is huge.

Let’s put it this way. It’s half again the water rights of the city of Las Vegas. And, going by age, the Central Arizona Project is the last in line.

And, that’s what makes this so huge. And, relevant to this blog, so huge in state-level politics.

But, things aren’t that simple inside Dinetah, the Navajo homeland. More — much more — on the jump.

First, Pollack is a bilagaana — a white man — and so, distrusted by many Navajos. With Arizona pushing back against Navajo claims, and Pollack very much a pragmatist, he’s even been accused of creating a water rights holocaust against the Navajos.

And, that problems stems back to legendary, and ultimately criminal, former Navajo Tribal Chairman Peter McDonald. McDonald tried to get a Navajo water rights claim based on their current reservations, but “Dinetah” as the Navajos see it — the Navajo claim to all the land inside their four holy mountains. Problems with that include not only that the federal and state governments wouldn’t recognize that, but McDonald and other Navajos were ignoring the Hopi, Utes, Zuni, Jicarilla Apache and the 19 Indian pueblos on the Rio Grande who lived in the area, as the High Country News article notes.

But the dreams went up in smoke with Peter Mac’s arraignment on corruption charges, for which he was eventually convicted.

But, the idea still holds sway in many Navajo minds. And, Jack Utter, a bilagaana conspiracy theorist who also works for the tribe, is fueling the anger against Pollack.

Anyway, who knows how this will turn out. As far as intra-Navajo scrums, the HCN story quotes an old aphorism:
The Navajos would rather have 100 percent of nothing than 50 percent of something.

Growing up in Gallup, I can attest to this having some degree of truth.

And, in this case, the Peter McDonald will-o’-the-wisp could be 100 percent of nothing for decades.

Or, with global warming and a drought of nearly a decade and counting tightening its grip on the Colorado Plateau, the Navajos could be pragmatic while still sitting in a large driver’s seat.

Anyway, read the full, in-depth story. This is why I subscribe to High Country News.