The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes up two tribal water rights settlements

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is taking up the first new tribal water rights settlements of the Trump era this week.

The hearing for S.664, the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, and S.1770, the Hualapai Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act, gives the administration its first major opportunity to express its views on the complicated issue. The Department of the Interior, the federal agency responsible for implementing tribal water settlements, will be testifying alongside tribal leaders on Wednesday.

“The federal government has a critical responsibility to uphold our trust responsibilities, especially tribal water rights,” Secretary Ryan Zinke noted last week as he executed the first tribal settlement since President Donald Trump took office in January, though the settlement itself was approved during the Obama administration.

The two new bills also represent years of negotiations during prior administrations. S.664 benefits the Navajo Nation by quantifying its rights to the portion of the San Juan River that runs through Utah.

"The settlement represents a win-win for the Navajo Nation and the state of Utah," Navajo President Russell Begaye said in March when the bill was introduced.

If enacted into law as written, S.664 would require the federal government to contribute $198.3 million toward water infrastructure projects on the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation. The state would contribute $8 million.

“Water infrastructure is a necessary part of building our economy and our communities and that’s what this bill would provide for our people,” said Davis Filfred, who represents Navajo communities in Utah as a delegate to the Navajo Nation Council.

S.1770 ratifies a settlement for the Hualapai Tribe. The bill quantifies the tribe's rights to the Colorado River in Arizona.

“The Hualapai Tribe is proud to be the leader in economic development in northwest Arizona, and we know the prosperity of our people benefits so many others,” Chairman Damon R. Clarke said when the bill was introduced in September.

S.664 and S.1770 are the first new water rights bills being considered by the committee in the 115th Congress, which began in January, just as Trump was taking office. Earlier this year, the panel advanced S.140 but that measure merely modifies a previously-approved deal for the White Mountain Apache Tribe.

S.140 is also advancing in the House though it has not yet cleared either chamber. So far, only one stand-alone Indian bill -- H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act -- is ready to be sent to the White House for Trump's possible signature.

Wednesday's hearing takes place immediately following a business meeting at 2:30pm Eastern. The full witness list follows:
Mr. Alan Mikkelsen
Deputy Commissioner, Bureau of Reclamation, Department of the Interior, Washington, DC

The Honorable Russell Begaye
President, Navajo Nation, Window Rock, AZ

The Honorable Damon Clarke
Chairman, Hualapai Nation, Peach Springs, AZ

The Honorable Spencer J. Cox
Lieutenant Governor, State of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Mr. Thomas Buschatzke
Director, Arizona Department of Water Resources, Phoenix, AZ

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Legislative Hearing to Receive Testimony on S. 664 & S. 1770 (December 6, 2017)

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