Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye OKs resuming irrigation for three chapters

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

NENAHNEZAD — Farmers in the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters of the Navajo Nation were cleared Thursday to resume using San Juan River water for irrigation soon.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye gave the directive Thursday night to open the the Fruitland Irrigation canal, which delivers water from the San Juan River to the three chapters. Begaye made the announcement during a meeting with chapter officials and farmers inside the Nenahnezad Multipurpose building.

The chapters have been without water since the canal was shut down in response to the Gold King Mine spill.

Three million gallons of toxic metals were released on Aug. 5 from the mine, located north of Silverton, Colo., into Cement Creek, eventually flowing into the Animas and San Juan rivers.

Tribal officials subsequently restricted the use of San Juan river water for irrigation, livestock and recreational purposes for the section of the river the flows through the Navajo Nation.

In a presentation, Begaye said the entire canal will be flushed before irrigation can start.

"You'll have water that's good for irrigation," the president said.

Begaye added that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency will continue monitoring the water quality, and collecting soil and water samples for testing.

Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy said flushing could start as soon as he receives the written directive from the president's office.

If flushing starts today, the entire canal should be full and ready to use by Sunday, Saggboy said in an interview after the meeting.

Upper Fruitland Chapter resident Cecil White was among many farmers who were satisfied by the decision to restore irrigation. White has 22.6 acres of farmland that grows corn and hay, as well as a pasture for his cattle and horses. Since the mine spill, White's fields have been without water, but he has been hauling water from the Upper Fruitland Chapter house for his garden and livestock.

"Everything is at a standstill," White said.

But for Liz Newton, restarting the irrigation canal came too late. Newton's farm is located in the San Juan Chapter, and she tried to save three acres of melons, chile, cucumbers and squash by using bottled water. She estimated she purchased 30 cases of bottled water and refilled one-gallon water containers.

Her efforts were not enough, as she showed a Daily Times reporter a photo of withered melon vines.

Newton also grows corn. She said the produce is consumed by her family, and portions are frozen and used in the winter.

"It is too late for me," Newton said, adding that she will be clearing her fields next week.

Prior to Begaye's announcement, chapter officials expressed their concerns about how the shutdown was affecting farmers and advocated for the irrigation to resume.

San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez read portions of a recent District 13 Council resolution that called for irrigation to resume.

Upper Fruitland Chapter President Hubert Harwood said a number of questions remain unanswered in regard to the situation, including how short-term compensation would be handled for farmers.

Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch reminded the audience about the importance of recording and saving documentation related to their farming activity.

"Certainly, keep track of that," Branch 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.