UPPER FRUITLAND — Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk pledged support Thursday for Navajo Agricultural Products Industry, which manages the federally funded Navajo Indian Irrigation Project.

The irrigation project, authorized by the United States Congress in the 1960s, was intended to provide an irrigation system from Navajo Dam to 110,000 acres of Navajo land. The statute included an annual diversion of 508,000 acre feet of water.

But construction of the irrigation project has stalled, especially during the last 20 years, NAPI General Manager Tsosie Lewis said. He used Echo Hawk's visit Thursday to prod the federal government for collaboration.

"We'll do everything we can to help," Echo Hawk said. Thursday's tour was his first at NAPI, the huge farm operation south of Farmington.

Echo Hawk, a Farmington High School graduate, toured portions of the 70,000-acre irrigated farmland and participated in a discussion about crop progress, financial needs and the future of NAPI and the irrigation project.

"We need his assistance in all these things," Lewis said. "NAPI used to be used as an excuse not to finish Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, but that's not an excuse now because the expectation was to be financially profitable. We've done our part."

NAPI, which ships 98 percent of its produce across the country and to Mexico, reported a profit of $9.5 million last fiscal year, which ended in May.

The report was good news, said Ervin Chavez, a member of the NAPI board of directors.

"In 2000, NAPI was in trouble," he said. "There were a lot of problems."

Changes in management and innovations in farming were among several factors to turn business around, but the project still needs federal attention to be completed, Chavez said.

"We'd like to have a partnership and continue collaborating," he said. "Things are happening. We have a need for more acreage. We're still at a point where we're just waiting. Why has this lingered for so long? The government's portion of NIIP fell way short of what was to be done."

NAPI has changed in the last years, said Omar Bradley, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Navajo Regional Office. The time is ripe for collaboration and partnership, he said.

"The environment has changed tremendously in terms of working relationship," he said, "and I can always offer that we will continue to work with NAPI and get into this new phase. ... We need to work together and move forward to the benefit of everybody."

NAPI should be a business model for other, future Navajo-operated industries, Bradley said.

"When I travel the reservation, I always look back at NAPI and to see what can be done," he said. "This is not a local organization, it is a national enterprise."

Echo Hawk, who took office June 1, stopped at NAPI after a whirlwind, three-day trip to the Navajo Nation, which included stops at several schools and the Window Rock, Ariz., capital of the Nation.

The visit was about 90 days in the making. A team of NAPI board members and managers visited Echo Hawk shortly after he took office, arriving before security officers in the former Idaho state attorney general's new office had learned his name, Chavez said.

NAPI officials believe Echo Hawk's ties to the Four Corners — he graduated from Farmington High in 1966 — may lead to a quicker response to pleas for funding.

"We wanted to meet with him because it seems like for the last (decades) we've been trying to penetrate those offices with no response," Chavez said. "We knew he was from here, that he could see this. A picture is worth a thousand words, and he'll think of that with the next appropriation."

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com