Federal, tribal agreement clears way for study

Noel Lyn Smith, nsmith@daily-times.com
U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor says a memorandum of agreement dealing with a study of alternative water sources builds on the department's relationship with the Navajo Nation. Connor signed the agreement on behalf of his agency on Wednesday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

SHIPROCK — Federal and Navajo Nation officials have entered into a memorandum of understanding to develop a study that will examine alternative sources that can supply water in emergency situations to farms that use the Hogback Irrigation canal.

In November, farm board members from the Shiprock, Tsé Daa K’aan and Gadii’ahi-Tokoi chapters requested that a study on that subject be conducted as a result of the Gold King Mine spill. The Aug. 5 spill released more than 3 million gallons of heavy metals-laden wastewater into the Animas and San Juan rivers. In response, tribal officials restricted the use of river water for agriculture and temporarily closed irrigation canals.

Tribal and federal officials gathered today at the Shiprock Chapter house to share information about the agreement with residents.

Tsé Daa K’aan Chapter resident Wanda Benally talks about how the Gold King Mine spill affected her farm on Wednesday during a meeting at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Tsé Daa K'aan Chapter resident Wanda Benally reminded officials about the struggles farmers faced in the aftermath of the mine spill. As a third-generation farmer, Benally said it was a sad to watch the yellow wastewater flow through communities, and the experience produced "emotional devastation and cries of emotional pain" because farmers watched crops wither because of a lack of water.

She thanked the officials for entering into the agreement because it could provide relief for farmers if another situation like the mine spill occurs.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López explained that the agency and the tribe signed the initial memorandum of understanding in 2000, an agreement that includes supporting the tribe’s efforts to protect its water resources. López reiterated that the study is a result of the letter submitted by the farm board members, who expressed concern about the lack of a secondary water source in case access to river water is lost.

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Estevan López shares information about the memorandum of agreement between the agency and the Navajo Nation on Wednesday at the  Shiprock Chapter house.

"We want to gather information. We want to devote a wide range of alternatives to see what’s most practical and what we can actually get done," López said.

The completed study will be presented to the Navajo Nation, and farm boards then will determine the next course of action, he said.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has committed funding from the bureau's fiscal year 2016 budget for the study, according to a press release.

Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor said officials also listened to the farm board members' concerns during a November meeting in Shiprock.

U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources Executive Director Bidtah Becker listen to comments about a study of alternative water sources on Wednesday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

"It makes sense from so many levels about how we respond to short-term crisis … how we can better use the infrastructure that’s available," Connor said.

Both López and Connor signed the agreement in front of the crowd at the chapter house. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye had signed the document prior to the event.

Bidtah Becker, executive director for the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, explained the president was unavailable because he was attending a federal budget hearing followed by a meeting with the Coalition of Large Tribes.

Becker also announced the tribe is close to securing a contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to fund irrigation rehabilitation projects.

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