No decision from Navajo Nation about lifting restrictions

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

SHIPROCK — Navajo Nation officials remain undecided about lifting restrictions for irrigation usage from San Juan River water.

The tribe placed restrictions on the river after it and the Animas River were contaminated by toxic metals released on Aug. 5 from the Gold King Mine north of Silverton, Colo.

Information about the tribe's response to the contamination was presented during a public meeting arranged by the Office of the Navajo Nation President and Vice President here Thursday evening.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said no decision had been made about when restrictions on using river water to irrigate crops or water livestock or for recreational purposes would be lifted. He said tribal leaders wanted to hear from residents about whether the restrictions should be lifted.

The president also informed the audience that medicine men will conduct prayers and ceremonies for the rivers. Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez reiterated the importance of praying for the river and its recovery.

As for deciding to resume irrigation activities, Nez said, "We're not making any decisions lightly."

Begaye said he appreciated the assistance provided by entities such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Navajo Region.

Sharon Pinto, the agency's regional director, said her office immediately understood the importance of water to the region because it is known for its agriculture. She said her office immediately went to action and obtained the necessary permits to deliver water and set up tanks within communities along the river.

Pinto said her office has spent approximately $470,000 to assist the tribe, and it is possible for the agency to continue its assistance into next week.

"How much longer will depend on the nation," Pinto said.

Acting Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency Executive Director Donald Benn did not release detailed information from his agency's testing of river water, but he said agency officials concur with New Mexico and Utah officials that the water is safe to use for irrigation.

Benn said there were a number of metals detected in the water, but he said he could not disclose what types they were because of pending litigation by the tribe against the U.S. EPA. He added his agency remains committed to monitoring the river.

"Water is life," Benn said. "It's our responsibility to protect it."

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch said the tribe will continue to hold the U.S. EPA accountable for its actions after an agency remediation crew accidentally caused the spill.

During public comments, Shiprock resident Byron Shorty asked Benn to release the Navajo EPA's data to the public. Shorty said he was making his request because there needs to be a trusting relationship between the people and the Navajo EPA.

Benn referred the matter to Branch, who said there is a desire to have that type of transparency but the tribe has to make sure it is not compromising its pending litigation.

"If I get the clearance, I'll advise Dr. Benn to make that information public," Branch said.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release issued late Wednesday stated that water quality in the San Juan River has returned to "pre-event" levels where it flows through the Navajo Nation.

Water quality testing along the Animas and the San Juan rivers from the Silverton, Colo., area where the spill originated to the boundary of the Navajo Nation has provided similar results, according to EPA officials, and bans on using the water have mostly been lifted.

Begaye spoke with EPA Administration Gina McCarthy Wednesday to review the data, according to the release.

The last day for EPA water deliveries will be Friday, the release states.

EPA officials will "work closely with the Navajo Nation in the coming weeks to ensure that a long-term monitoring plan for the San Juan River is implemented, according to the release. It also says that the EPA is prepared to provide technical assistance with flushing irrigation ditches on the Nation.

The cities of Farmington and Aztec planned to start pumping water from the Animas River to their water treatment plants Thursday. Officials said the levels of toxic contaminants are well within those that can be treated at the plants, which have been using reserve water supplies that were not contaminated by the spill.

Farmington is now pumping water from the Animas River to its water treatment plant after city Public Works Department workers restarted the Animas Pump Station No. 2 Thursday.

Farmington Public Works Director David Sypher was on site as workers started the pump back up around 10:30 a.m. Sypher said the city is looking to start using Farmers Ditch to supply the plant on Monday.

The city of Aztec started pumping water from the Animas River Thursday afternoon. City Manager Josh Ray said filtration tests were conducted around 1:30 p.m., and the pumps were turned on about 4 p.m.

Editor Chris Roberts and reporter Joshua Kellogg contributed to this report.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.