Navajo Utah Commission talks public health, ARPA
by David Boyle
The Utah Navajo Commission met on October 17 in Denehotso.
Members of the Navajo Utah Commission appointed Council Delegate Curtis Yanito as the chairperson, with Teec Nos Pos Chapter President Kenny Victor as the vice chair.
After accepting the appointment, Yanito spoke about priorities for the commission. First listed is an ask to see water rights issues brought up every month.
Key among those issues is the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement. The settlement was finalized in May, 2022 between the Navajo Nation, the State of Utah, and the federal government. The settlement recognizes an annual water right of 81,500 acre-feet from Utah’s allocation of the Colorado River basin, including water from the San Juan River.
In addition, the agreement includes over $215 million in funds for the creation of water infrastructure for Utah Navajo. Several hurdles are in the way before federal funds can be spent, including the conclusion of an adjudication process.
“We need to update this every month,” said Yanito “We’d like to see local leadership involved. Farmers, ranchers, local government, chapters, district grazing committee and so forth.”
Yanito highlighted other priorities including an emergency management plan with an emphasis on communication infrastructure such as cell towers.
Yanito also raised health concerns related to oil fields and uranium contamination in the Utah Navajo strip. Another public health safety concern for Yanito are roads.
Vice Chair Kenny Victor shared his priorities, including that basic housing for residents as some are inadequate. Victor also expressed hope to see collaboration between schools and Indian Health Services to talk about hazards including transfer of dangerous materials on highways.
Another key for Victor is fire protection for residents, noting that insurance premiums are steep without quick responding fire agencies throughout much of the Navajo Utah strip.
Members of the Commission also heard from Grant Sunada, Director of San Juan Public Health.
Sunada presented some of the work of the public health department, as well as the collaboration with Shawn Begay, the Public Health Director with Utah Navajo Health System (UNHS).
Among the collaborations highlighted include Covid-19 response and vaccination events, as well as the UNHS Teddy Bear clinic and other collaborations and events.
Representing Aneth chapter, Commissioner Brenda Brown asked about health education offered by the public health department.
Sunada highlighted the county tobacco compliance checks county wide. The department also has infant and toddler car seat installation and training events, including a recent one in Monument Valley.
Sunada also highlighted state certification now offered to community health workers, noting there are about 40 workers enrolled in that certification at USU in the county.
Commissioner Brown asked if the county could include Aneth in education programs, including possible presentations at the Aneth Chapter house.
Brown also inquired about Covid response, including advocating for another vaccination drive.
Begay said UNHS hasn’t discussed doing a drive-thru event again. Begay said they want to listen to the community, and while the drive-thru events had high turnout initially, with the public health order lifted it seems to be less urgent for people to arrive all at once.
Begay added they will advertise once the latest vaccine booster becomes available.
Commissioner Herman Farley, representing Red Mesa, asked Sunada about health effects of living near the Elk Petroleum lease area. Farley asked if a study by public health could be done to see what effects may be happening in the area.
Begay noted that Dr. Tommy Rock, originally from Monument Valley is looking at air pollution impacts on the Navajo Nation as part of postdoctoral research.
At the meeting, members of the commission heard a report from San Juan County Commissioner Jamie Harvey. Navajo Utah Commissioners thanked Harvey for his report. Much of the conversation by the commissioners related to working to return maintenance of roads to San Juan County.
Chair Yanito added his recommendation that the commission draft a resolution to have the Navajo Nation pay San Juan County to maintain roads on the Navajo Utah Strip. The road had been handed over to the BIA and NDOT.
At the meeting, members of the commission also heard an update on American Rescue Plan Act projects in Navajo Utah Chapters.
Presenting was Wilson Stewart, Jr., Programs and Project Specialist with the Navajo Nation Fiscal Recovery Fund Office.
Stewart noted there is about eight months before the funds need to be spent. With limited staff resources, the Navajo Nation is working to approve projects throughout the 110 chapters ahead of the federal deadline.
Members of the commission also had in-depth conversations about the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement as part of the meeting.