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Hopi Tribal Council to take up bill rejecting Little Colorado River water settlement

On Friday, the Hopi Tribal Council is scheduled to discuss a controversial water rights settlement bill introduced in Congress.

Legislation sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl would settle Navajo and Hopi claims to the Little Colorado River in exchange for municipal water projects on the reservations.

Opposition to Senate Bill 2109 has brought together long-time political enemies on the Hopi reservation.

Ivan Sidney, Vernon Masayesva (Ma-sigh-yes-va) and Ben Nuvamsa are all former Hopi chairmen who rarely have seen eye to eye.

That is until Valentine’s Day, when Sen. Jon Kyl introduced a bill that will settle water users’ claims to the Little Colorado River.

The trio has used their clout to oppose Kyl’s bill, speaking against it in public meetings and emails.

Now, they’ve submitted a resolution calling on the Tribal Council to officially reject the water settlement. 

“This is the most important thing to us, and in fact, may be the last vestige of our sovereignty is water," Nuvamsa says. "We just cannot give that up easily just for some small municipal water supply system.”

He says everyone but the Hopi will benefit from the bill.By everyone he means the Navajo Nation, Peabody Coal Company, the owners of Navajo Generating Station and downstate water users.

Nuvamsa says all the Hopi get from the deal is the promise of water delivery systems.

“Hopi has far superior water rights than any other organization or interest group,” he says.

Nuvamsa says a claim filed in Apache County Superior Court asserts the Hopis right to far more water than the tribe would get in Kyl’s bill.

Sen. Kyl says a court may award the Hopi more water, but it may award the tribe less. 

And, he says, “They won’t get any money to develop that water into a usable form.”

Kyl’s bill includes $350 million to build water projects on the Hopi reservations.

He says although Hopis already have water delivered to their  villages, the money could be used to improve water quality and to ensure there is enough water in the future.

That is because this bill limits the amount of water that Peabody Coal Company can pump from the Navajo or N-Aquifer.

Kyl says the Hopis have complained about Peabody pumping the N-Aquifer for years.

“They’re primary point is we’ve been getting water for hundreds of years out of the N-aquifer springs, and we see that threatened and we want to make sure it’s still there because that’s our water," Kyl says. "This agreement provides that guarantee for them.”

Nuvamsa says the bill is a gift to Peabody and Navajo Generating Station.

He says the power plant in Page will get a federal right to water in the Little Colorado River.

Not so, says Dave Roberts, water resources manager for Salt River Project, which operates Navajo Generating Station.

“There’s no water from the Little Colorado River that goes to the Navajo Generating station,” he says.

He says the Senate bill has a provision that would allow the Navajo Nation to use Colorado River water in Window Rock.

But that’s if the Navajo Nation extends the Navajo Generating Station’s lease for 40 more years.

The Central Arizona Project supported that provision because it wanted assurances that Navajo Generating Station could continue pumping water cheaply to downstate users.

Roberts at Salt River Project says the coal-fired power plant benefits Hopis too.

He points out that the Hopi tribe depends on coal royalties from Peabody for its operating budget.

But former Hopi chairman Nuvamsa says coal royalties and water delivery systems are small benefits compared to the amount of water the Hopi could win in court.

That water could be sold or used for economic development on the impoverished reservation.

(27:22) But Kyl asks, “When they win, if they do,  what will they have? They will have a piece of paper signed by a judge that says, ‘here’s how much water you’re entitled to.’ That’s all. How will they get any water to the villages?”

Kyl says he will not move the bill forward in the Senate until both the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils approve it.

Last week, the Navajo Tribal Council Speaker announced he will introduce legislation to bring the issue to a vote as soon as possible.

Former Hopi Chairman  Nuvamsa says the Hopi constitution requires all villages to support major legislation.

So far, opponents say half of the Hopi villages have rejected Kyl’s bill.

For Arizona Public Radio, I’m Shelley Smithson.