Talks continue about reopening irrigation system on Navajo Nation

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — While discussion continues about a request from three chapters located along the San Juan River to restore irrigation service, personnel from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency continued to collect soil and water samples on Wednesday.

In response to the irrigation service request, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has scheduled a meeting with officials and farmers from the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters.

Mihio Manus, the president's spokesman, said the meeting is set for this evening at the Nenahnezad Chapter house, and it will focus on the resolution passed this week by the District 13 Council and the process of flushing the Fruitland Irrigation Project, which serves the three chapters.

The District 13 Council's resolution supports lifting the tribe's declaration of emergency, and requests that Begaye and the Navajo Nation Irrigation Office in Shiprock release river water for crop irrigation and to supply water for livestock.

Navajo officials issued water-use restrictions for the portion of the river that flows through the nation after toxic wastewater was released Aug. 5 from the Gold King Mine.

In a media conference call Wednesday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Deputy Administrator Stan Meiburg said an internal review of the agency's response to the spill found there was enough high water pressure to cause a blowout at the mine.

"The review team concluded that an under estimation of water pressure inside the mine workings was likely the most significant factor related to the blowout," Meiburg said.

He added the review team concluded that pipe drilling could have potentially detected the high water pressure, but there is no evidence drilling would have been necessary.

Mathy Stanislaus, EPA assistant administrator in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said the agency remains on site to stabilize the area and there is a possibility of surges.

The report and associated documents are available at

At the Fruitland Diversion on the San Juan River, Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy helped guide an excavator as it removed debris, including fallen branches and roots, from the river.

He said workers were there as part of routine maintenance.

"We're just doing our job," Saggboy said, adding the crew completed work near the Upper Fruitland Chapter house, as well.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, announced that the committee will conduct an oversight hearing on the mine spill's impact on Indian Country.

In addition to the Navajo Nation, the spill impacted the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in Colorado.

"Tribes use the waters from these rivers, and this hearing will be a good chance to hear firsthand how this disaster is impacting them. The EPA needs to work with these tribes to ensure the mess is cleaned up, the sovereignty of the tribes is respected, and that the concerns of the tribes are acted on," Barrasso said in a press release.

The hearing is scheduled for Sept. 16 in the committee's hearing room in Washington, D.C.

Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the hearing will provide an opportunity for tribal leaders to express their concerns to committee members.

"The members of council have many concerns for their constituents and communities, especially for the elderly and youth who may not fully understand the circumstances. The scheduled hearing will allow congressional leaders to hear those concerns directly from Navajo leadership," Bates said in a statement.

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.