Survey and Adjudication next steps in Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement
by David Boyle
Federal and state agencies are working through the next steps to bring water infrastructure to the Navajo Utah strip.
At a recent meeting representatives from those entities outlined their work which, when completed, will prepare the way for the Navajo Nation to plan and build $250 million in water infrastructure in the area.
In May 2022, representatives of the state of Utah, the Navajo Nation, and the Federal Government signed the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement.
That signing concluded 18 years of formal negotiations between the parties and affirmed water rights in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, as well as providing $218 million for water infrastructure in the Utah Navajo strip.
The settlement recognizes a reserved water right of 81,500 acre-feet of water annually for current and future use by the Navajo Nation in the State of Utah from the San Juan River and its tributaries.
With the settlement formalized, the Navajo Nation, State of Utah and federal government are working on the next to steps to see the impacts of the settlement.
The Utah Division of Water Rights held public meetings in Aneth and Monument Valley on June 13 to update the public on the implementation of the settlement.
Among the presenters was Justin Record of the Federal Bureau of Reclamation. Record is the chair of the federal implementation team for the Utah Navajo Water Rights.
Record explained that following the signing of the settlement agreement, the Bureau has three implementation steps to complete, including the budget request and funding, a hydrographic survey of all existing and historic Navajo water use, and adjudication of the Navajo Nation water right in Utah.
Record reports that the settlement funds have been secured. While the 2022 agreement listed $218 million, the total amount is now nearly $250 million in the trust fund as it is indexed for inflation.
Record explained the funds will remain in the trust fund until all the steps are completed.
“Once all the steps are done, that money is released for the Navajo to develop projects.
“I don’t know what projects the Navajo will develop. Our only requirement is that those projects be within Utah for the people of the Navajo Nation that reside in Utah.”
As a result, the settlement participants are working to complete the hydrographic survey and the adjudication steps in order to allow for the Navajo Nation to plan and build water infrastructure in the Utah Navajo strip.
Both steps are in process now, with the Bureau of Reclamation and the Utah Division of Water Rights both given an estimated completion in 2024.
The hydrographic survey is being administered by the Bureau of Reclamation. Presenting with Record was Gary Jordan, who is part of the survey team. Jordan translated the presentation in Navajo and provided additional information.
The hydrographic survey is intended to document existing and historic Navajo water use in the Utah strip.
The Reclamation survey began with collecting available information from the Navajo Nation, and other entities and is continuing with on-site surveys.
“We are looking for any signs of use, looking for a diversion dam, fields, even fence lines, if there’s a fenced-in garden even if it’s not being watered now, we look at any sign of use that shows that waters been used on the water in the past,” said Record.
An April 2023 status report estimated the survey is 51 percent complete across the Utah Navajo Strip. Although much of it is concentrated in certain chapters, including 99 percent complete on the Oljato Chapter and 86 percent complete in the Aneth chapter, while Teec Nos Pos and Navajo Mountain chapters are listed at zero percent.
The Bureau of Reclamation estimates it will finish the in-field surveys in June of 2024.
While the Bureau of Reclamation works on the hydrographic survey, the Utah Divison of Water Rights is in the process of aiding a water rights adjudication of the Navajo Utah strip.
Water rights adjudication is a legal process that is intended to identify historic and existing water rights in a specific area and document their use.
The 13-step process includes holding public meetings and contacting those with water rights claims in the adjudication area.
In the Navajo Utah strip, the Division has a record of 134 claims. 105 of those claims have filed to assert their water right, among them include the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the San Juan School District, St. Christopher’s Mission, Conoco Phillips Company, and many other individuals and corporations.
While 105 have filed a claim, 29 rights have not been claimed. Of that number, 22 are associated with oil and gas companies. The list of unclaimed water rights can be found online at https://waterrights.utah.gov/adjdinfo/activeAdj.asp.
Attorney Sarah Schechter of the Utah Attorney General office, and Casey Francisco of the Bureau of Indian Affairs provided information on the adjudication at the meeting, with Francisco providing information in the Navajo language.
Schecter explained the state is currently evaluating non-nation rights that have been claimed within the Navajo Utah strip.
“The list of unclaimed water rights is really just almost a paper process to get water rights that are on our state records that are no longer being used off our state records.
“That does not apply to the reserved rights of the Navajo Nation.”
The reserve right established by the 2022 settlement is unaffected by the list of unclaimed rights, meaning the claimed and unclaimed rights will not lessen the ability of the Navajo Nation to claim the 81,500 acre-feet of water as part of the settlement.
Record estimated that approximately 10,000 acre-feet are currently being used by the Navajo Nation, meaning more than 70,000 acre-feet will be available from the San Juan River and tributaries for future development.
Nearly $250 million for projects will be available for Navajo Nation water projects as the remaining federal and state implementation steps are completed with an estimated completion in the next year.
That infrastructure will be built under the direction of the Navajo Nation to benefit Utah Navajos.