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Navajo Utah Water Rights Act championed by Utah leaders awaits president's signature

FILE - In this May 28, 2019, file photo, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, right, and U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt look out over Pueblo Bonito, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M. Lawmakers from the country's largest American Indian reservation may have thrown a wrinkle into efforts aimed at establishing a permanent buffer around the national park. Navajo Nation delegates voted Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, to support a buffer only half the size of the one proposed in legislation pending in Congress. The Navajo vote comes despite support from the pueblos, Navajo President Nez and some individual Navajo communities for the more expansive protective zone. (Hannah Grover/The Daily Times via AP, File) [Feb-27-2020]

(AP Photo)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

WASHINGTON — Congress has passed the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act after its inclusion in the appropriations package that included $1.4 trillion for federal spending and nearly $900 billion for COVID-19 relief.

The act was championed by Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. Ben McAdams, who wrote a joint letter to House and Senate leaders in October and facilitated calls between House leadership and Gov. Gary Herbert urging for its passage.

After its passage in the Senate in June, Gov. Herbert released a statement applauding the efforts.

"This agreement is the result of more than 15 years of good faith work between Utah leaders, the U.S. Department of Interior, and the Navajo Nation. It will create clean drinking water projects for our Navajo friends and certainty for Utah's future water needs. My sincere thanks to Senator Romney and President Nez for their great work. I look forward to seeing it considered soon by the House of Representatives," said Herbert.

The legislation, led by Rep. Rob Bishop and Rep. John Curtis, both Utah Republicans, now awaits a signature by President Donald Trump.

According to McAdams and Romney's letter, the devastation of the Navajo Nation by COVID-19 is partially due to the lack of safe drinking water for preventative measures, with nearly 40% of the Navajo Nation Reservation population lacking running water and/or adequate sanitation in their homes. The Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act helps remedy that by authorizing $210 million in funding for water infrastructure on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, helping to provide clean drinking water.

The Navajo Nation had reported 21,177 total positive COVID-19 cases and 748 total deaths as of Tuesday, according to its health department dashboard. The nation has had to issue and extend several 57-hour weekend lockdowns in an attempt to flatten the coronavirus curve in the hard-hit area.

"In the 21st century, to have Americans living on the Navajo reservation without access to clean, running water is unconscionable. Now more than ever, as these citizens grapple with a surge of COVID-19 cases, safe, secure, clean water is essential to their health," said McAdams in a statement. "This was a Team Utah effort and I was proud to be part of achieving this long overdue outcome."

In addition to providing funding for water infrastructure, a statement from Romney said the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act also:

  • Settles all current and future claims by the Navajo Nation for water rights within Utah, thus precluding costly future litigation for all parties
  • Provides the Navajo Nation with the right to deplete 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from Utah's Colorado River Basin apportionment
  • Requires the state of Utah to contribute $8 million in funding toward the settlement, which has been approved

According to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, the passage of the act was several years in the making. In June 2019, Nez testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife and called upon Congress to pass the settlement legislation immediately. Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer also met with congressional members and Utah leaders to request support for the act.

"All of the countless hours spent negotiating, lobbying, and pushing this historic water settlement over the years by so many leaders has finally paid off. Through the combined efforts of many advocates and leaders over the years, we are confident that our Navajo people in the state of Utah will receive the clean water resources they deserve. We truly appreciate all of the support from the House and Senate. I am confident that President Trump will sign the water settlement into law," Lizer said in a statement.

Nez thanked Romney and Curtis in a tweet after the act had passed.

The act was included in a large appropriations and COVID-19 relief package, which is set to provide up to $600 payments to individuals, extend $300 weekly unemployment insurance by 11 weeks, extend a loan program for small businesses, provide $13 million in benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, and extend the eviction moratorium to Jan. 31. Trump is set to sign the bill later this week.

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