Flushing starts on Fruitland Irrigation canal

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

UPPER FRUITLAND — Water from the San Juan River returned to the Fruitland Irrigation canal as flushing started Friday morning.

The canal, which delivers river water to the Nenahnezad, San Juan and Upper Fruitland chapters of the Navajo Nation, was closed after tribal officials issued water-use restrictions for the portion of the river that flows through the nation after toxic wastewater was released from the Gold King Mine earlier this month.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye approved the reopening of the canal during a meeting Thursday with officials and farmers from the three chapters.

The Hogback and Cudeii Irrigation canals remain closed, and restrictions for using river water for irrigation, livestock and recreational purposes remain in effect.

Begaye's decision was issued after District 13 Council members passed a resolution this week that supported lifting the tribe's declaration of emergency and requesting the president and the tribe's Irrigation Office in Shiprock to release river water for crop irrigation and to supply water for livestock.

Shiprock Irrigation Supervisor Marlin Saggboy said if the flushing goes according to plan, farmers could start using the water to irrigate by Sunday.

As Saggboy stood near one of the canal's gates, the water flowed slowly with occasional tree branches and aluminum cans being carried by the current.

"That's why we flush them out, to get all the debris out," he said.

Saggboy continued to watch the water, then waved when a resident on an ATV drove by.

"They're excited. They want to see if the water is coming. ... Farmers want water," Saggboy said.

By 3 p.m., the water was traveling west from Upper Fruitland to Nenahnezad.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released water quality and sediment data for the portion of the San Juan River that flows through the Navajo Nation.

The EPA collected surface water and sediment samples from 11 locations and analyzed for 24 metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, according to a press release.

The release explains that concentrations of iron and other metals in the river water peaked during the week of Aug. 10 as the mine waste traveled through the reservation, but have since returned to pre-release conditions.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Alton Joe Shepherd is sponsoring legislation to support the release of the San Juan River water to irrigate crops and water livestock.

The bill, which was posted to the council's website Thursday, directs the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency to assist in reopening the Fruitland, Hogback and Cudei Irrigation systems.

It states that the council's Resources and Development Committee is aware that not all farmers want the irrigation canals open to their farms.

"That being the case the committee believes it is up to the farmers to decide for themselves whether the irrigation water should be turned on to their farms," the bill states.

An event focusing on discussion about water security, preserving Diné water and developing solutions will be from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday at the Shiprock Youth Complex in Shiprock.

The "For the People: Water is Life" benefit concert will follow the event at 4 p.m. at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

Brandon Benallie, one of the organizers, said the benefit concert will feature a mixture of comedy and music.

Performers will include Klee Benally, Radmilla Cody, James Bilagody, Chizz Bah, JJ Otero and Michelle Thomas with Miss Navajo Nation McKeon Dempsey providing the closing prayer.

Time will be provided to community members to talk about the mine spill and its impact, Benallie said.

Rather than paying for admission to both events, organizers are asking for donations of water in reusable containers or monetary donations.

Donations will go to the Shiprock Chapter to help families impacted by the mine spill.

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.