Tribe's EPA calls for opening of Hogback canal

Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Director Donald Benn, left, Navajo Nation EPA Senior Hydrologist Steve Austin and Navajo Nation EPA Environmental Specialist Fred Johnson participate listen Friday during a meeting with local ranchers and farmers at the Shiprock Chapter House.

SHIPROCK – After reviewing results from water and sediment testing for the San Juan River, the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency recommended Friday that the Hogback Irrigation canal be opened.

Navajo Nation EPA Executive Director Donald Benn made the announcement during an information meeting about the irrigation system with farmers and ranchers from the Shiprock, Tsé Daa K’aan and Gadii'ahi-Tokoi chapters.

The Hogback Irrigation canal delivers San Juan River water to the chapters and has been closed since tribal officials issued water-use restrictions for the portion of the river that flows through the Navajo Nation as a result of the Gold King Mine spill last year.

The Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters passed resolutions to keep the canal closed after the spill. The tribe installed pipelines and water pumps to deliver water to the Gadii'ahi-Tokoi Chapter after the membership expressed support for resuming using the water for crop irrigation.

Benn said the Navajo EPA was monitoring the water quality in locations along the river before the Aug. 5 spill and has increased the number of monitoring sites since then.

Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Specialist Fred Johnson, left, Navajo Nation EPA Senior Hydrologist Steve Austin and Navajo Nation EPA Director Donald Benn present their findings on water and sediment testing from the San Juan River Friday during a meeting with local ranchers and farmers at the Shiprock Chapter House.

The tribal agency is also coordinating with state agencies in New Mexico and Utah, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to compare and evaluate data as part of the monitoring efforts.

“Based on the data, Navajo Nation EPA concludes there is no basis to recommend keeping the irrigation canals closed,” Benn said.

Steve Austin, a senior hydrologist with the tribe’s EPA, presented details about how the agency collected samples and shared the results that reveal the levels of metals such as lead, arsenic and dissolved vanadium in the water and sediment. He said the data were compared to the tribe’s water quality standards, and the results fall below the standards for livestock and agriculture usage.

He reiterated the agency's recommendation to resume delivering river water by the irrigation canal.

Austin said water quality and sediment monitoring will continue since the Navajo EPA received a grant from the U.S. EPA. The grant will cover monitoring at 10 locations along the river, as well as on three tributaries and two canals. The team is looking at completing 10 collections from spring to early fall, followed by two collections next winter and three collections during next year's snow melt.

As part of the monitoring effort, New Mexico State University has established an alert system for people who use the river water for agricultural purposes. People can register to receive alerts and updates by calling 505-444-5807.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie speaks Friday during a meeting at the Shiprock Chapter House.

The meeting also included information from Karletta Chief, a hydrology professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who is leading a team that is also monitoring water and sediment. She shared her team’s results, as well as details of its study, which also examines health impacts from the spill.

Chief said the results for arsenic and lead levels were similar to those of the Navajo EPA.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie said Friday's meeting was organized after farmers and ranchers recommended not reopening the irrigation canal until testing results were shared. Yazzie said last month the Shiprock Chapter members tabled a resolution that recommended that the canal be reopened.

That resolution will return for consideration by the chapter membership during a chapter meeting scheduled to start at noon on Sunday, Yazzie said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.