NGS lease: Navajo water rights not “deal killer”

Navajo Councll chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., where Council and standing committees meet. Photo by Marley Shebala

Navajo Councll chambers in Window Rock, Ariz., where Council and standing committees meet. Photo by Marley Shebala

By Marley Shebala
(Published in Gallup Post 7-25-201. Updated 8-8-13)

WINDOW ROCK – The Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation is under an extreme drought.

And the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Reservation is under extreme and severe drought conditions.

That’s according to the National Drought Mitigation Center, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

But on July 18, the Navajo Nation Council voted 16 in favor and 6 opposed to approve a 25-year lease renewal for Navajo Generating Station that allows the coal-fired generating station to continue using more than 34,000 acre feet of water a year from the Little Colorado River, allows Peabody Kayenta Mine to continue pumping about 13 million gallons of pristine water annually from the Navajo Aquifer, and continues providing power to the Central Arizona Project to pump about 1.5 million acre feet of Colorado River water yearly to Phoenix, Tucson, central Arizona tribes and to recharge the aquifers in Phoenix Valley and Tucson.

Shelly declared a state of emergency for the reservation due to drought conditions on July 1 after the Council voted 18 in favor and 1 opposed for Shelly to declare an emergency drought on June 28 as part of their approval of $4.1 million to address the reservation-wide drought conditions.

Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo Nation Water Rights Task Force member who lives about 15 miles south of the Peabody Kayenta Coal Mine, said that the Black Mesa area gets less than 8 inches of annual rainfall.

In April, Horseherder lead a women’s walk to the Council chamber, where she asked the Council to consider the health effects of coal operations on the children and elders and the protection of water, land and water from coal pollution.

She noted recently that she and her group, To’Nizhoni Ani (Beautiful Spring Speaks) support the continuation of NGS while establishing a large-scale renewable energy project at the non-operational Black Mesa Mine by 2019.

Horseherder added that Black Mesa renewable energy would be used to provide energy to power Central Arizona Project.

She said To’Nizhoni Ani also supports the assurance of payments by NGS to the tribe for use of any Upper Colorado River Basin water by 2019 and the retirement of shares owned by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Nevada Power in NGS, which would allow for the implementation of a ten-year remediation plan for unit decommissioning and clean-up of coal ash by 2019.

On July 15, the tribal president reminded the Council during his state of the nation address about his emergency drought declaration.

“The state of emergency I declared remains in effect to address the drought,” Shelly told the Council. “What is realized from the drought and other climate changes is that we look to new methods of resource and livestock management.”

Naize, in his speaker’s report to Council on July 15, immediately noted his concern about the reservation’s emergency drought.

“Water is becoming scarce in certain regions of our nation so we must use extra precautions to protect the well-being of our livestock,” he reported to the Council.

But when it came time for Naize to break an 11-11 tie regarding the removal of an amendment to the NGS lease renewal that Delegate Russell Begaye sponsored to protect Navajo water rights, Naize voted in favor of removing it on July 18.

The Council voted 12 in favor and 11 opposed on the removal of Begaye’s amendment, which would have prevented Salt River Project, as the representative and operator of NGS, from blocking Navajo Nation’s future claims to its water rights from the Colorado River and Little Colorado River.

Delegate Dwight Witherspoon, who was among the 6 opposing vote on the lease renewal and among the 11 opposing votes on removing Begaye’s amendment, explained on Wednesday that he supported Begaye’s amendment because he didn’t believe that it was a “deal killer.”

Witherspoon said that Begaye’s amendment was simply tribal “leverage” for SRP not to oppose the tribe’s claim to its water rights and the amendment had no additional financial costs attached.

“It doesn’t cost them any money,” he emphasized.

But Delegate LoRenzo Bates, who made the motion to remove Begaye’s amendment on July 18, said that Begaye’s amendment would have killed the NGS deal.

Begaye, in a separate interview after the Council approved the NGS lease renewal, emphasized that his amendment was not designed “to kill the deal.

“It was designed to put us in a position to get the water we need,” he said. “Now, it’s going to very difficult for the Navajo Nation to get water from the Upper Colorado. I wished the Council had remembered what happened in Phoenix when we all opposed the proposed Navajo-Hopi Colorado River Water Settlement against NGS. But we didn’t do that.”

Begaye recalled a meeting with NGS and Central Arizona Project in Phoenix to discuss the proposed Navajo-Hopi Colorado River Water Settlement over a year ago.

In that meeting, the NGS owners said no to the Council delegates and before he left the meeting, he informed the NGS owners that the water rights of the Navajo people would be an issue when the NGS owners went to the Council to renew the NGS lease, he added.

“I wish that we maintained our decision we took in April that water was critical to this legislation,” he said. “But we didn’t do that. I don’t know exactly what happened but I think it was the desire to just get it passed.

On April 29, the Council approved the NGS lease renewal with several amendments, including Begaye’s Navajo water rights amendment. On April 30, Salt River Project, which operates NGS for the owners and one of the owners, informed the Council that the amended NGS lease was “unacceptable,” especially the water rights amendment.

“And the Council delegates that stood with us on April 29 changed their minds,” Begaye remembered. “They were strong in voicing their opposition on April 29 but this time they didn’t voice that. So I think that there was a lot of lobbying.”

Some of the delegates have relatives who work at NGS and NGS had numerous workers talk to the delegates, he said.

But Begaye said there were a few NGS workers who spoke to him and some of the delegates and encouraged him and the other delegates to stand up for people.

“One person said the workers could always get another job but the water is something we will always need in the future,” he recalled. “They could see the big picture. They were not just looking at the salaries and jobs. They understood that we were protecting the Navajo Nation by going after the water.

Bates recalled he explained to the Council and Begaye that the possibility of Begaye’s amendment being a “deal killer” was 75 percent.

During the debate over Bates’ motion, Navajo Nation Department of Justice attorney Marcelino R. Gomez reminded the Council’s of SRP’s opposition to any amendment to the lease that prevented SRP and other NGS owners from interfering with or opposing tribal claims to water from the Upper Colorado River Basin.

SRP Associate General Manage & Chief Power System Executive Michael Hummel stated in an April 30 letter to the Council that the water rights condition “unreasonably limits our ability to address a future potential Navajo Nation claim that is currently undefined and unquantified.

“Such a future claim could have a direct impact on the NGS owners and their customers,” Hummel stated. “There, we will not waive the ability to oppose an undefined and unquantified potential future claim.”

On July 23, Hummel issued the following statement in response to questions from the Gallup Post regarding Begaye’s amendment and its removal:

“The owners of the Navajo Generating Station are pleased and thankful that the Navajo Council has voted to approve legislation that would extend the lease of this important Arizona resource. We are currently reviewing the amendments that were included in the final vote but the initial indication is the amendments are acceptable.”

The two amendments included in the final Council vote set July 31, 2013, instead of July 31, 2013, as the deadline for a $1 million signing bonus for the tribe.

The new deadline replaced a June 30, 2013, Council approval deadline and a July 7, 2013, deadline for Shelly to sign the Council approved lease.

The second amendment added six reservation communities to the “NGS Community Chapters” provision, which allows for those chapters impacted by NGS operations to receive 2 percent of the annual lease payments, which is $43 million in the lease approved by the Council on July 18.

The six chapters are Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso, Kayenta, Navajo Mountain, Oljato, and Ts’ah Bii Kin.

The six chapters join the NGS community chapters of Bodaway-Gap, Cameron, Coalmine Mesa, Coppermine, Kaibeto, LeChee, Shonto, Tonalea, and Tuba City.

Council Delegate Jonathan Nez, who sponsored the amendment to add the six chapters, was involved in all the debates regarding the NGS lease renewal and was outspoken about upholding Navajo water rights, until July 18.

In response to questions about whether his amendment was why he opposed Begaye’s water rights amendment, Nez said, “I was just advocating for my chapters.”

Nez also confirmed that he met with the NGS owners about his amendment and got their support before presenting it to the Council.

A few days after the Council approval of the NGS lease renewal, Council Delegate Mel Begay and Nez traveled to Hawaii for a tribal leadership conference.

Council Speaker Johnny Naize, who was the sponsor of the NGS lease renewal legislation, selected Begay to be speaker pro temp during the debate over his NGS legislation.

Nazie, as speaker, approves all travel for the Council’s standing committees and delegates.

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