Lt. Governor Henderson discusses water settlement, proposed roads, Westwater
by David Boyle
The State of Utah has been active working on projects in San Juan County, including at Westwater, and Navajo Mountain.
Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson spoke with Red Rock 92.7 FM about their work on June 6.
In less than two years since taking office, the Lt. Governor reports visiting San Juan County more than a dozen times. Her most recent visit came on the weekend of May 27 when state, federal and tribal representatives executed the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement in Monument Valley.
The agreement concluded 18 years of negotiations between the parties and affirms the water rights of Utah Navajos.
The settlement also awards $218 million for water infrastructure in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
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.
The allocation comes from the Utah apportionment of the Colorado River Basin, which includes tributaries.
Henderson said that the agreement is the culmination of years of collaboration and compromise to find solutions to problems.
“What’s out of sight is out of mind for a lot of people along the Wasatch Front,” said Henderson. “And I think that the agreement last week is a massive step in the right direction as far as not only actually getting infrastructure and running water to people who desperately need it, but to recognizing that we are all Utahns and we all need to have the same advantages, opportunities, and benefits.
“That means we have to invest in infrastructure in these outside parts of the state.”
Among those infrastructure projects is the work to bring electricity and water to the Westwater community near Blanding.
The community and its residents are unique as it is located on private property owned by the Navajo Nation but is not on the reservation. Despite being located just outside Blanding City, the area still does not have electricity or running water.
“People have been trying for decades to get running water in Westwater and it’s been so tough and they just kind of give up. I’m determined not to give up. I’ve been working closely with the City of Blanding. I’ve been working closely with President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation, with the county leaders and other tribal leaders to try and get this done.”
Partners including the Navajo Nation, the State of Utah, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have all contributed financially to the project.
Henderson reports the state appropriated $3.5 million toward the project, with some money going to infrastructure in Westwater and some going to infrastructure in Blanding to connect the two communities together.
The Navajo Nation is also reportedly coming up with $3 million to go towards the project.
While electricity is expected in Westwater in a few months, running water faces another hurdle. Blanding City has been proposed as a partner for the project to bring water to Westwater.
Blanding City indicated they could provide the water if additional water was brought into the city through a deep well project. The state granted the city approximately $500,000 to update its water plan and do preliminary engineering and design for the well.
At their May 24 meeting, the Blanding City Council received an estimate of $3.8 million to dig the well. The State of Utah has $1.65 million appropriated for the well, leaving a shortfall of $2.15 million.
On June 6, Henderson said they are looking at options to fill that gap for what she considers to be a needed project for the city.
“It will provide redundancy in the water supply. It will help provide for future growth in the city. It’s not necessarily needed in order to connect with Westwater, but it’s something I know Blanding City would really like to have and probably really does need in the near future,” said Henderson. “So we have funding for them, for that, and it isn’t going to cover all of it. We are working to see if we can find other funding sources to cover that gap.”
Henderson also framed the issue in another light, “I guess you could look at it as Blanding City could have a deep water well with a significant amount of help from the state, and again we’ve already given about $400,000 for the engineering study for that deep water well, or Blanding city can do it by themselves years down the road.
“The options here aren’t great I guess, but we’re doing our best as a state to provide the resources that would be beneficial to Blanding city.”
Henderson also had praise for Blanding City leaders as the state has continued to work on the project.
“These are not easy solutions and I really have to give credit to the Mayor, the City Councilmembers and the City Manager really have been incredible to work with,” said Henderson. “I believe they all want to see this happen. We’re just trying to be good partners as a state, trying to figure out how to help make sure it happens.”
In addition to the project to bring utilities to Westwater, Henderson has been involved in the proposed road between Oljato and Navajo Mountain.
While the Navajo Mountain and Oljato chapter houses are separated by about 20 miles as the crow flies, driving between the two communities takes about two hours, with almost all of the travel occurring in Arizona.
A proposed $170 million road would connect the two communities and also build a bridge over the San Juan River connecting to Highway 276 in San Juan County.
Henderson drove from Navajo Mountain to Piute Mesa as part of a group touring the area of the proposed road in April of 2021.
On May 26, the Lt. Governor along with representatives from the Utah Department of Transportation, state legislators, and tribal leaders toured the road from Oljato to Piute Mesa.
“It’s one thing to say hey there’s a real need for a road down here, it’s another thing to have them come down and experience it,” said Henderson. “Listen to the people who live there, listen to them tell how difficult it is to get their kids to school, getting access to food, broadband access, health care access, all sorts of things. The negative economic impact that it has to not have that basic infrastructure and not have a road.”
Henderson says federal infrastructure dollars provide an opportunity to work with the Navajo Nation to connect Navajo Mountain to the rest of Utah.
“We have an opportunity right now with the infrastructure dollars to work together with the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah to really figure out how we can build a road that will connect Navajo Mountain to the state that it’s in, to the rest of the state.”
To get the project underway, about $4 million is needed for an Environmental Impact Study before any work on the ground can happen. While $2 million was appropriated for the project from the state legislature in a preliminary budget during the 2022 session, that allocation did not materialize at the end of the session
Henderson says a lot of people want to make the Oljato to Navajo Mountain road happen.
“We got a lot of leaders who now see that need, so we’ll keep working together, we’ll keep collaborating. And I’m hoping that we can really start to make a difference down there. Really start to lay out some concrete plans for getting a road built.”
Among those on the field trip in May was State Senator David Hinkins of Ferron, who represents San Juan County. Hinkins requested the allocation for the EIS during the 2022 session.
Also on the field trip was State Senator Ron Winterton of Roosevelt. Winterton’s professional background is in operating a trucking company and he serves on several State Transportation committees.