Navajo Utah Commission discusses priorities

The Navajo Utah Commission was visited by Navajo Nation President Johnathan Nez at their January 20 meeting.

Nez briefly spoke with the commission telling them his office looks forward to bringing Utah Diné priorities to new administrations in Utah, as well as in Washington, DC.

The Navajo Utah Commission is made up of chapter presidents and Navajo Council delegates with Utah Diné constituents.

President Nez mentioned Navajo Nation priorities for the Biden administration include the re-examination of the Bears Ears National Monument boundaries. This was ordered by President Biden on his first day in office.

Nez said other priorities for his work in Utah includes roadways and bringing infrastructure, such as running water and electricity, to the community of Westwater.

Last year, the Utah State Legislature had planned to spend $500,000 to bring basic infrastructure to the community located next to Blanding.

The funding had bi-partisan backing, along with support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Utah Diné Bikéyah.

However, the early economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic meant the funding was scrapped from the state budget in Spring 2020. Now the item is again a priority for the Navajo Utah Commission and President Nez.

Nez reports he plans to go to the Utah State legislative session to discuss funding for the infrastructure needs at Westwater.

At the same meeting, the commission received a report on the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act. The bill passed out of Congress in December 2020 with support from the Navajo Nation and the State of Utah.

The bill settles all current and future claims by the Navajo Nation for water rights within Utah, while providing the Navajo Nation the right to deplete 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from the Utah apportionment from the Colorado River Basin.

Additionally, the bill authorizes $210 million in funding for water infrastructure on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Stanley Pollack, a water rights attorney for the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, reported to the commission on the latest regarding the act.

“Getting the bill through Congress is a monumental step, but it’s not the end step in the progress,” said Pollack. “There is still a lot of work to be done.”

Work includes confirmation steps, creating a fund management plan, and execution of the settlement by the US Secretary of the Interior, the Navajo Nation President, and the Governor of Utah.

As part of developing a fund management plan, Pollack advised chapters to reference previously created plans.

Several years ago, the Utah Navajo chapters created an infrastructure development plan. It is anticipated that the preliminary engineering should still be available for the chapters.

The plans could act as a roadmap to finalize how to spend the $210 million of federal funds to create water infrastructure in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Additionally at the meeting, members of the Navajo Utah Commission met with Dustin Jansen and Larry Echo Hawk, who are representatives of the State of Utah. Jansen serves as the director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs and Echo Hawk serves as special counsel and advisor to Utah Governor Spencer Cox.

The two will serve as liaisons between the Governor and all eight tribal entities in the State of Utah.

At the same meeting, members of the Navajo Utah Commission received a report from Utah Navajo Health Systems (UNHS) Director Michael Jensen, on efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 while increasing vaccination.

Jensen reported on the resources UNHS is making available to patients, ranging from thermometers and oximeters to wood and water.

Jensen reports UNHS even has a limited number of motel rooms in Blanding available for those who test positive for COVID-19 and cannot isolate at home.

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