U.S. Water News Online
WASHINGTON -- A long-standing water dispute in New Mexico's
San Juan Basin appears to be inching toward a resolution, with two
key Republicans agreeing to work on a settlement.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne pledged to work with New
Mexico, although he did not agree to back a 2005 settlement with the
Navajo Nation that would cost the federal government almost $1
billion over 20 years.
And Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who last year declined to back a
settlement bill by Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman, said he would work
this year with Bingaman on revised legislation.
But it will be slow going, Domenici cautioned in a statement.
"As it stands, the federal budget simply cannot accommodate the
New Mexico settlements," Domenici said.
Three water disputes are pending in New Mexico. In the largest,
the state and the Navajo Nation signed a settlement in April 2005
that called for a pipeline to serve the Gallup and Navajo
Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., have introduced bills that
would make the settlement final.
The agreement is estimated to cost between $800 million and $900
million over 20 years, with the state paying about $65 million. It
would give the Navajo Nation rights to about 56 percent of the
projected water in the San Juan River Basin available for use in New
More than 70,000 people live without running water on the Navajo
Nation, the country's largest American Indian reservation.
But Domenici and the federal government have been slow to get
behind the proposal, in part because of the cost.
The pledges by Kempthorne and Domenici represent a significant
step forward. Domenici said he believes the Bush administration won't
resolve the dispute without federal legislation.
Bingaman said he needs the Interior Department's blessing to pass
the bill. He pressed Kempthorne about the legislation during a Senate
hearing on the department's budget.
New Mexicans are growing impatient that the department won't back
the Navajo settlement even though it has signed onto other expensive
water settlements in Arizona and California, Bingaman said.
"I guess I'm concerned we have something of a double standard
going on here," he said.
Kempthorne said the department is juggling 19 pending Indian water
rights disputes. An environmental study due in March will help
officials make progress on the Navajo settlement, he said.
In the examples Bingaman cited, Congress had enacted legislation,
then the funding followed, Kempthorne explained.
Frustrated, Bingaman told him: "That's what we're trying to do
here. We're trying to enact the legislation. We just want your
Kempthorne didn't promise to back the legislation. But he promised
to keep working with the state. "We, too, would like to see
resolution," he said.
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