Navajo Nation Hopes To Boost Water Supplies With Settlement
June 23, 2011

Ricky Jensen drives 12 miles of dirt roads to Cameron, Arizona several times a week to fill up four, 50-gallon barrels of water and haul it back to his grandmother’s sheep.

He takes a stack of quarters off the bed of his pick-up truck and deposits them into the water station.

A skinny pipe sticks out from the top of a shack that houses the well. On the end of the pipe, a leaky hose has been duct taped several times. Water, the life-blood of dry Indian land, pools in the red dirt.

“To me it feels like a luxury to have running water like that,” Jensen said. “Some people have running water here, but they still don’t want to drink it.”

Photo by Laurel Morales
Ricky Jensen drives 12 miles to Cameron, AZ to get water for his grandmother's sheep and another 25 miles for drinking water.

But this water is only for livestock. Traces of e-coli and uranium have been found in it. So Jensen must travel much further to Tuba City or Flagstaff for his drinking water.

About 40 percent of the people who live on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water. The tribe has been struggling for decades to get more drinking water. Now they are on the verge of a historic agreement that will help them get a share of the Colorado River.

The Navajo Nation sits smack in the center of the Colorado River basin, but the seven western states that draw water out of the river shut tribes out of the discussions in the 1920s. Indians weren’t even recognized as United States citizens until two years after the Colorado River Compact was signed.

“We had to fight for our citizenship. We had to fight to vote,” said former Navajo water commissioner Lena Fowler. “Today, we’re fighting for our water rights. We have to fight every day, every day, for our rights.”

In 2003, the Navajo Nation filed suit against the federal government to claim their rights to Colorado River water. Since then, they’ve settled water disputes with basin states like New Mexico and Utah.

And finally, last November, the Navajo tribal council approved a deal with Arizona. But because of outdated state water laws and complicated federal water rules, the deal was hard to broker and was held up in negotiations for years.

Attorney Stanley Pollack has been the tribe’s main water negotiator for 25 years. He understands the passion over this issue.

“Without water there's no life. Without water there’s no prosperity,” Pollack said. “Without water there’s no economic development. And without water, there’s no permanent homeland.”

But many members of the tribe remain unhappy with this deal. Ultimately it guarantees the tribe far less water than some believe they are owed. So Pollack has been the subject of fierce criticism.

“It’s very, very easy to be on the outside and throw stones,” he said. “It’s much harder to be on the inside and get things done.”

Pollack has literally had rocks thrown through his office window and has been repeatedly insulted. Still, he's had to find a way to make the deal palatable to the tribe, the state, the Obama Administration and Congress. The timing is critical.

Arizona Senator Jon Kyl wants to push the settlement legislation through Congress before the Republican retires at the end of next year.