Council OKs funds for water, wastewater plans

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, center, presents his bill funding various water and wastewater projects in communities across the reservation to the council at the winter session on Thursday in Window Rock, Ariz.

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. – The Navajo Nation is taking its first steps toward using a portion of the money from a 2014 settlement it received from a lawsuit filed against the federal government.

Members of the Navajo Nation Council voted 18-0 Thursday to use $79 million from the principal of the Síhasin Fund for 62 water and wastewater projects in communities across the reservation.

The Síhasin Fund was established after the tribe received a $554 million settlement, which was signed by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in September 2014.

In December 2014, the council passed a bill establishing the fund, and it was signed into law by then-President Ben Shelly.

In April 2015, the Naa'bik’íyáti’ Committee established the Síhasin Subcommittee for the purpose of reviewing and evaluating comments and recommendations submitted by individuals, chapters, tribal entities, programs and officials for utilizing the money.

The subcommittee recommended the funding go to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch for bulk water and wastewater development, according to the bill.

According to the bill, the fund's principal and income can only be utilized only when an expenditure plan is adopted by a two-thirds vote of the council.

The tribe’s Office of the Controller reported that, as of Jan. 1, the fund’s principal was $487.9 million, and the interest earnings were at $458,431, according to the legislation.

Delegate Leonard Tsosie sponsored the bill. In his comments before the council, he said the process for determining how to use that portion of the fund followed the directive issued by the Naa'bik’íyáti’ Committee.

He added that, typically, when the tribe negotiates water rights with state and federal officials, tribal officials request funding for water infrastructure projects, but none is received.

“So in the name of self-determination and Navajo sovereignty, by golly, let’s build it ourselves,” Tsosie said.

After reviewing the list of projects, some delegates commented on others that were not listed.

That point of view changed when Delegate Leonard Pete held up a large plastic bottle filled with murky brown water, then reminded delegates that this type of water flows through faucets on the Navajo Nation.

This problem could end if the bill was approved, he said.

Delegate Jonathan Hale said the information complied to form the project list was a collaborative effort between the chapters, NTUA and IHS.

“Because that’s what moves a nation,” Hale said.

Twelve delegates were appointed to the Síhasin Subcommittee, which convened at least 12 times to review and evaluate comments and recommendations for using the fund.

“Being a member of the Síhasin committee, we want to make sure each chapter benefits,” Delegate Kee Allen Begay Jr. said.

The $554 million settlement was the result of a 2006 lawsuit the tribe filed against the federal government, alleging the mismanagement of money generated from leases pertaining to the tribe’s natural resources.

Starting in October 2014, a series of public meetings was held after the settlement was signed. During those meetings, comments were collected about how the tribe should utilize the money.

When the tribe received the settlement money in December 2014, a press release from the speaker’s office explained that approximately $44.3 million would be used to pay attorney fees.

The press release also stated that 12 percent of the settlement was deposited in the permanent trust fund, 2 percent int the Land Acquisition Fund and 4 percent in the Veterans Trust Fund, in accordance with the Navajo Nation Appropriations Act.

Before delegates started their debate, Tsosie acknowledged the work of former Delegate Lorenzo Curley. Curley served as chairman of the Trust Mismanagement Litigation Taskforce, which assisted with settlement negotiations.

In comments in front of the council, Curley remembered the creation of the task force and the time spent in negotiations.

“The money is there. You guys do well in spending those monies,” Curley said.

The legislation will be submitted to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye for review. After it is submitted to his office, the president has 10 calendar days to sign or veto it.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.