Irrigation canals reopen on Navajo Nation
GADII'AHI – Equipment Operator Ned Castiano drove a backhoe loader to locations along the irrigation canal here to open valves so flushing could start Wednesday morning.
This month, personnel from the Navajo Nation Irrigation Office in Shiprock have been clearing debris and completing maintenance on the system of canals that serves farms in chapters along the San Juan River. They are preparing the canals to receive water after they were closed last year in response to the Gold King Mine spill. That incident released more than 3 million gallons of contaminated mine waste into the Animas and San Juan rivers last August, and tribal officials issued water-use restrictions for the river water.
Gadii’ahi is served by the Cudei canal, which receives river water through a pipeline or siphon that runs under the river from the Hogback canal.
The Hogback canal delivers river water to the Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters. Together, the system runs 30 miles from the Hogback diversion to the Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter. A separate system — the Fruitland Irrigation canal — serves the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters.
During the weeks that followed the mine spill, chapters determined whether to resume irrigating with river water or keep the canals closed.
Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy said the Fruitland canal started operating in early April.
Meanwhile, chapter members served by the Hogback and Cudei canals decided to reopen the system after listening to results on April 15 from water and soil testing conducted by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency and New Mexico State University in addition to a joint study by the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University.
Saggboy said the Irrigation Office understands there were several concerns expressed by residents, but hearing the results, including a recommendation by the Navajo Nation EPA to reopen the canals, eased those worries.
Farmers are not obligated to use river water, he said, adding that individuals can close their irrigation head gates.
Saggboy said crews will be flushing the A and B canals in the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter today as part of the efforts to have that system fully operational by next week.
After the tribe eased water-use restrictions last year, the Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters continued to oppose reopening the Hogback Irrigation canal due to concerns about the amount of heavy metals released during the mine spill into the river.
The Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter approved resuming irrigation activities, and the tribe’s Department of Water Resources installed pipelines and pumps to deliver river water to fields.
Gilbert Harrison is the farm board member for the Gadii’ahi-Tokoi Chapter and president of the San Juan River Farm Board. He said the farmers were satisfied with the information they received April 15 about the testing completed on the soil and river water.
“We look forward to it and (are) glad the water is back on,” Harrison said about the canal openings.
The Shiprock and Tsé Daa K’aan chapters approved separate resolutions this month to open the Hogback canal.
Shiprock voted 46-14 in favor of the measure with 10 abstentions on April 17, and the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter voted 17-4 in favor of it with nine abstentions on April 18, according to a press release from the Shiprock Chapter.
Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie said in the press release the decision was “anticlimactic,” and concerns remain, but chapter members "made efforts to reassure" themselves.
“All in all, we are farmers, and farmers must farm, so the people have spoken,” Yazzie said.
Jean Jones, the farm board member for the Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter, said chapter members voted on the matter after hearing testing results, which indicated the water is safe to use for agricultural purposes.
“I guess it’s good,” Jones said adding a number of farmers are glad the Hogback canal is operating.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.