Contested water settlements inflamed the Navajo Nation’s health crisis

Colonial laws and federal neglect created a worse-case scenario during a global pandemic.

 

Aaron Wood, a volunteer with the Water Warriors United Campaign, gives the remaining drips of water to a resident after filling their barrel. After a long history of underdeveloped water resources in the Navajo Nation, nonprofits have stepped up to provide residents with water.

The Navajo Nation is at the center of the worst global pandemic in recent memory. Although the total number of COVID-19 cases is small compared to national hotspots, the rate of infection is among the nation’s highest.

Today, national media is focused on Navajo water insecurity — a clear threat to Diné people during the pandemic. About 30% to 40% of reservation residents do not have regular running water. But behind this statistic lies a history of racism and underdevelopment. Even as white communities benefited from decades of expensive water infrastructure, Diné communities were denied the rights and resources necessary to access the same water.

Water settlements between tribes and states are a source of much of this continued underdevelopment. For Indigenous people, these settlements also represent colonial dispossession, because they often suspend allocation of water rights and funding for water infrastructure until tribal leaders give in to the state’s demands. In 2005, for example, then-Arizona Republican Sen. Jon denied the Navajo Nation 6,411 acre-feet of water until it resolved its claims to the Colorado River with the state of Arizona.

While the U.S. was violently annexing the Western United States and vigilante militias murdered and displaced Diné and Apache people, settlers moved into Indigenous lands and dammed and diverted rivers. The settlers created a system that enabled them to monopolize the region’s limited water supply. A new legal and political concept became part of Western water law — a concept that favored the expansion of mining companies, farms and a booming livestock industry over the Indigenous communities already using the water.

The Colorado Compact of 1922 brought the entire Colorado River and its tributaries into this water regime. It divided the river into 15 million quantifiable units, known as “acre-feet,” that enabled the U.S. and Western states to more easily divert and distribute water, subject to the laws of the states involved. At the same time, under Winters’ (1908), Indigenous water claims were limited to the date when reservations were established, ignoring centuries of tribal use and governance.

During the New Deal, rural electrification bypassed reservations while the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation competed to dam and divert rivers in the Western U.S. Dams flooded Indigenous lands, killing ecosystems while providing power to settler communities. Water security was soon taken for granted in Western cities, while Indigenous nations found their water supply becoming increasingly precarious.

In the 1960s, cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas expanded. The federal government favored development policies that opened reservations for mining and energy. Coal was extracted from the Navajo Nation, converted into energy, and used to power huge generators near the Parker Dam along the Colorado River. Today, these generators move Colorado River water over the Buckskin Mountains and toward Phoenix and Tucson. It is an unnatural process only made possible by Diné coal. The water provided critical infrastructure for Arizona and allowed Phoenix to grow from a small Western town to a sprawling metropolis.

While the U.S. was violently annexing the Western United States and vigilante militias murdered and displaced Diné and Apache people, settlers moved into Indigenous lands and dammed and diverted rivers. 

Starting in the 1970s, state officials proposed settling Indigenous water claims, seeking to resolve lawsuits between tribes and states in favor of limited water rights for tribes. Today, these settlements often contain money for smaller water infrastructure projects.

But these agreements come at a cost. State officials use them as bargaining chips during negotiations, creating an adversarial relationship between tribes and states. In two recent instances, Sen. Kyl deprived the Navajo Nation of federal funding for water infrastructure in order to pressure Navajo officials to settle water claims with the state. 

In the San Juan River settlement of 2005, Kyl denied Diné communities in the Window Rock area water from the Gallup Supply Project until the Navajo Nation settled all of its existing water claims with Arizona. And in 2010, in yet another proposed settlement, Kyl refused to bring forward legislation that would free the 6,411 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River settlement and also included $800 million in proposed water infrastructure for the western portion of the Navajo reservation. Kyl claimed the infrastructure was too expensive. But today, these are the very communities that are suffering from high COVID-19 infection rates.

Construction of the Monument Valley waterline extension, which was funded by The Indian Health Service and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The pipeline provided 128 homes with water. Another water project, the Western Navajo Pipeline, has been on hold for at least 10 years.

There are many factors that create a crisis like this. Water settlements are not the only one, but they are a critical reason why the Navajo Nation lacks water infrastructure today. When we see statistics stating that 30% to 40% of Diné communities lack running water during a global pandemic, they are not statistics without history. The entire situation is an artifact of colonialism. It is the result of decades of indifference, neglect and deliberate underdevelopment. 

Today, however, there is hope: The Navajo Nation Council has allocated $651,000 of CARES act funding for water projects within the Navajo Nation. But a lasting solution will require greater investment in physical infrastructure on the reservation. The Navajo people should not have to wait for water-rights litigation or legal settlements before they get the water, infrastructure and power settler communities take for granted. That is why Congress should fund the Western Navajo Pipeline. This project, which has been on the shelf for at least 10 years, was part of a 2010 water settlement that Sen. Kyl rejected. Had it been funded in 2010, it might have reduced the impacts of COVID in the Navajo Nation. The communities the pipeline would have served are among those that have been hit hardest by the pandemic. A tremendous amount of pain and hardship could have been avoided if the state had simply funded the pipeline a decade ago.

Andrew Curley is a member of the Navajo Nation and assistant professor in the School of Geography, Development, & Environment at the University of Arizona. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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