“This bill is not good for Hopi”: Benjamin Nuvamsa on “S.2109 – Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012”

February 20, 2012

To the Hopi Tribal Council

To the Hopi and Tewa Senom

On the 100th birthday of the State of Arizona, February 14, 2012, Senator Jon Kyl (R), former Salt River Project attorney, introduced Senate Bill 2109, the “Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012”, which would approve the settlement of water rights claims of the Hopi Tribe (and Navajo Nation) and allottees of both tribes. The bill would “resolve litigation against the United States concerning Colorado River operations affecting the States of California, Arizona, and Nevada and for other purposes”. This bill is not good for Hopi.

Senator Kyl, in introducing his bill, said: “Legally, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe may assert claims to larger quantities of water, but, as seen here, they do not have the means to make use of those water supplies in a safe and productive manner. Among water-law practitioners, the tribes may be said to have „paper water, as opposed to „wet water. Those claims are far reaching, extending beyond the mesas and plateaus of northern Arizona calling into question water uses in California and Nevada”. He continued: “In exchange for legal waivers, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe will receive critical water infrastructure”. This means the tribes will be required to waive their aboriginal water rights, or Winters Rights, (and rights of individual allottees) in order to receive groundwater delivery projects. But funding for these projects is not guaranteed. In fact, the bill relieves the federal government from funding the operation and maintenance of the projects.

Senator Kyl would not have introduced this bill without first obtaining concurrence of the Hopi Chairman and the Hopi Water and Energy Team. In fact, Hopi Chairman Shingoitewa is quoted in recent news articles as saying “Were very happy that weve gotten to this point where we are able to get things done, and the benefit is for our people”. I disagree with Shingoitewa. This bill is a death sentence because it would forever waive and extinguish the Hopi Tribe’s aboriginal rights, Winters Rights, including the rights of allottees, in exchange for a promise for groundwater projects without guaranteed federal funding. The bill does not acknowledge Hopi’s rights under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago.

It is no surprise that S.B. 2109 favors non-Indian water users such as the Arizona Public Service, Central Arizona Project, Navajo Generating Station (NGS), and Peabody Western Coal Company. In his presentation, Kyl said: “Importantly…(the bill) provides immeasurable benefits to non-Indian communities throughout Arizona, California, and Nevada”. Kyl, former attorney for the Salt River Project, will retire soon from the Senate and the negotiating teams are in a hurry to complete these agreements before he retires. The non-Indian water users need his continued support.

The bill ensures continued operation of NGS and Peabody Coal Company. It would give NGS about 34,000 acre feet per year of federal water rights that it currently does not own. The existing coal leases, brokered by the late John Boyden, already give Peabody exclusive subsurface rights to our water (Navajo Aquifer), coal and other and minerals. If this bill becomes law, NGS and Peabody would now have federal water rights to continue pumping water from the precious N-aquifer. And, Hopi and Navajo could lose all sovereign rights and authority over the coal leases and NGS operations.

Peabody and NGS damaged our environment, the N-aquifer, and our natural resources through almost 50 years of coal mining on our lands. Peabody pumped over 3.3 million gallons of pristine N-aquifer water each day to slurry coal to the Mohave Generating Station (MGS) until it was stopped by the tribes and MGS shut its doors in 2005. There is evidence now that the N-aquifer has, in fact, been damaged. The study by Dr. Daniel Higgins provides empirical evidence of water level decline at Kayenta and spring discharge decline at Moenkopi from excessive pumping. Our sacred springs are drying up and our drinking water supply is contaminated. But S.B. 2109 requires the tribes to agree to a “waiver and release of claims for water rights, injury to water rights, and injury to water quality from time immemorial and thereafter, forever…”

Our ancestors, Hisat Senom, occupied the Colorado Plateau and the Little Colorado River basin since time immemorial. When the federal government established the Hopi Indian Reservation, it set aside sufficient quantities of water to sustain our people. So, by the 1908 federal court decision in Winters v. United States, we have aboriginal and superior water rights over other water users. Yes, we need critical water delivery infrastructure. Yes, we need to quantify our Winters Rights. But these are aboriginal rights that we must not waive and give up. Water is sacred. It is central to our traditional ceremonies and our way of life. We have a sacred covenant to protect our resources and our Hopi way of life. Our forefathers and elders fought very hard to protect and preserve our sovereign rights. They fought hard to preserve everything that is Hopi. We cannot be forced to violate our moral conscience and abandon our religious rights guaranteed us by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

The Hopi and Tewa People have not been consulted, nor have they been informed of the terms and conditions of S.B. 2109 by Shingoitewa and the Hopi Water & Energy Team, yet these officials apparently expressed agreement with the proposed bill to allow Senator Kyl to introduce this bill. We also do not believe the entire Hopi Tribal Council was consulted. And while many question the legal composition of the Hopi Tribal Council, Hopi and Tewa People must mandate the tribal council to immediately reject this disastrous bill. Finally, any agreement to settle Hopi’s water rights must be done only through the vote of the People. Hopi and Tewa People have already demonstrated their disagreement with this Administration’s legislative agenda when they defeated, by a referendum vote, the proposed revision to the tribal constitution.

Benjamin H. Nuvamsa

Former Hopi Tribal Chairman

2 Responses to ““This bill is not good for Hopi”: Benjamin Nuvamsa on “S.2109 – Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012””


  1. 1 beth simpson February 20, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Peabody pumped over 3.3 million gallons of pristine N-aquifer water each day to slurry

    If the cost of mining that coal is factored by the cost of the pristine water would they (have) been able to mine it. How much is pristine water worth? …

  2. 2 feminineocean February 21, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    Trust you have communicated this to the Hopi Radio Station and the Hopi and Navajo newspapers. This is a very important issue and this bill must be stopped. Kyle is a very dangerous man.


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© Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS, 2009-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert and BEYOND THE MESAS with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert is enrolled with the Hopi Tribe from the village of Upper Moencopi in northeastern Arizona. He is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and a Dean's Fellow and Conrad Humanities Scholar in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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