Navajo Nation starts planning for use of $554M trust settlement

Darlene Arviso delivers clean water to her fellow Navajo Nation citizens as often as she can. Photo from Navajo Water Project

Leaders of the Navajo Nation are planning to dedicate a portion of a $554 million trust fund settlement to improving infrastructure on the largest reservation in the United States.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie introduced legislation on Tuesday that calls for $101 million to be spent on large-scale water projects over a five-year period. He said he wrote the bill after hearing from tribal members across the 27,500 square-mile reservation.

"More than 80 percent of the Navajo people stated that they want infrastructure development with the trust settlement fund," Tsosie, who chairs the panel that held a series of public hearings in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, said in a press release.

Tsosie's bill, which will be considered during the council's winter session that starts on Thursday, envisions contributions to the water projects from federal, state and other entities. Those types of partnerships could help make the tribe's investments even stronger on a reservation where one-third of 500,000 households still lack access to clean water.

From left: Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy and Navajo Nation Vice President Jonathan Nez, examine water conditions on the San Juan River in New Mexico on August 11, 2015. The tribe declared an emergency after more than 3 million gallons of dangerous waste from an abandoned mine in neighboring Colorado entered the water system. Photo from Facebook

By building new water treatment and delivery plants, upgrading existing systems and creating networks of pipelines, tribal lawmakers also hope to spur economic development. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the Navajo Nation Water Management Branch already have more than 40 projects in mind and would share in the $101 million fund.

"This plan addresses one of the most fundamental necessities for Navajo families, communities, and economic development – the need for water infrastructure," Delegate Seth Damon said. "In order to promote economic development, we first need basic infrastructure and this plan takes a major step in addressing that need."

The $554 million settlement is the largest ever for a single tribe. It resolves a lawsuit that accused the Interior Department of mismanaging the tribe's trust funds and trust assets.

Invoking the concept of Sihasin, or thoughtful critique and analysis, lawmakers created the Síhasin Fund to accept the settlement. Minus attorney fees and other tribal set-asides, the available balance is about $409 million, according to a Navajo Nation Council report, so the water investment represents about a quarter of that amount.

From the Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Navajo Nation Trust Fund Settlement Ceremony

The tribe has been investing the available funds in the stock market while the council considers how to spend the money. Future expenditure plans are expected to address education, health care and other needs on the reservation.

"It is good to see the settlement monies be used for direct benefit to Navajo people and communities," said Tsosie, the chairman of the Navajo Nation Council's Síhasin Fund Subcommittee.

Since President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, his administration has settled more than 80 tribal trust fund cases. The dollar value has grown to about $2.8 billion.

"We're really settling a lot of the past disputes that have kept us apart," former assistant secretary Kevin Washburn, who left the Bureau of Indian Affairs last month, said at the National Congress of American Indians annual convention in October. "You can't be serving people and litigating against them at the same time."

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