A bill that would authorize funding to settle the Navajo Nation's water rights claims and a pipeline serving Navajo and Gallup won approval Thursday in the U.S. Senate.

Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the Northwestern New Mexico Rural Water Projects bill must win approval from the U.S. House before it heads to President-elect Barack Obama.

The legislation would authorize federal funding for a pipeline to serve Gallup and the Navajo reservation and various water conservation projects in addition to settling Navajo water rights claims in the San Juan River Basin.

The measure passed by a 73 to 21 vote as part of a public lands bill. The state of New Mexico and the Navajo tribe signed an agreement in 2005 that resolves the tribe's water claims and Bingaman's bill passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in May.

"I know there's a lot of skepticism still on the part of some that we'll actually go ahead and fund this and get it built," Bingaman said in a conference call with reporters. "But I think we will, and I think passing this legislation is the necessary first step."

Some 40 percent of Navajos on the reservation have had to live without "readily accessible drinking water," the Democrat said in a statement.

The pipeline, if it receives funding, could be built in 15 to 20 years, Bingaman said. The bill authorizes $870 million for the project, the bulk of which the federal government would fund. The state and communities served would pay for a portion of the project.

"I'm optimistic we can get support from the (Obama) administration for appropriations to actually get some of this done," Bingaman said about funding.

The legislation would recognize about 600,000 acre-feet per year of water that would go to Navajo people for agricultural, industrial, municipal, domestic and stock watering purposes. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, in a statement issued by Bingaman's office, called the lack of easy access to water on the Navajo Nation "an outrage." Udall helped Bingaman introduce the bill in the past.

"Today, after years of work on this bill, I am glad to say that we are one step closer to eliminating this injustice through a process that will help all of those who depend on northwestern New Mexico's water supply," Udall said in the statement.

The Democratic senator said he hoped the House would quickly pass the bill.

Steve Lynn: slynn@daily-times.com

The Associated Press contributed to this report.