Navajo Nation committee hears irrigation concerns from chapter officials

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Chapter officials reported to the Navajo Nation's Resources and Development Committee Tuesday about the impact the closure of the San Juan River is having on agriculture.

Water-use restrictions remain in place for the portion of the river that flows through the Nation. Tribal officials issued the restrictions after toxic wastewater from the Gold King Mine flowed into the river more than two weeks ago.

Among the reports the committee heard were from Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region Director Sharon Pinto, Shiprock Chapter farm board member Joe Ben Jr. and members of the District 13 Council.

Pinto reported the BIA Navajo Region is continuing to fill tanks with water for livestock and irrigation purposes, and each tank site is being monitored for usage and adjusted to meet the demand.

She said there are 948 agriculture land use permits that receive water from the San Juan River Irrigation Project, which is comprised of the Cudei, Hogback and Fruitland irrigation Projects.

During Ben's report, he reminded the committee that today makes the third week since the spill occurred north of Silverton, Colo.

"We have yet to haul to farming areas one gallon of water," Ben said.

He noted the water tank delivered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Region to the Shiprock fairgrounds remains in operation but it is intended to water livestock.

Despite the label, some farmers are using it to water fields, he said.

Ben reminded the committee that 104 chapter members voted against resuming irrigation activities with river water because more studies on the river's condition need to be completed.

Before ending his report, Ben asked the committee to ask the tribe's water resource to send trucks into the chapter's farming areas to supply "immediate relief" and for the committee to continue examining the situation facing Shiprock farmers.

"I can give you a tour. I can show you where our problem is," he said.

On Monday, the District 13 Council, which consists of officials from the Nenahnezad, San Juan, Tiis Tsoh Sikaad and Upper Fruitland chapters, passed a resolution in support of lifting the tribe's declaration of emergency and requesting that Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and the Navajo Nation Irrigation Office in Shiprock release river water for crop irrigation and to supply water for livestock.

San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez, who serves as the District 13 Council chairman, said farmers from the district's chapters are very concerned about not being able to use river water despite being told that test results show it is safe for irrigation, and they are seeing residents in communities off the reservation using the river water.

He added Begaye has not visited or spoken to the farmers in Nenahnezad, San Juan or Upper Fruitland.

"We want the water on. Our farmers want it on. Those that don't want to use the water do not have to use the water," Nez said.

Standing next to Nez were Upper Fruitland Chapter President Hubert Harwood, Nenahnezad Chapter President Norman C. Begaye, San Juan Chapter Vice President Robert C. Begay, and Nenahnezad Chapter Community Land Use Committee Secretary Lucinda Yellowman-Bennalley.

"We need to salvage what we have left. We can still do it," Harwood said about turning on the water.

During the committee's discussion about the reports, Mariana Kahn, an attorney with the Navajo Nation Office of Legislative Counsel, informed the committee that Begaye is in discussions to lift the emergency declaration, which would allow irrigation to resume.

Committee Chairman Alton Joe Shepherd issued a directive to Kahn to draft legislation to lift the restriction for using river water to irrigate crops with the option of chapters deciding whether to use the river water.

"Hopefully, he (Begaye) does lift it, and we move forward," Shepherd said.

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.