Arizona congressional delegation introduces $5 billion bill on indigenous water rights

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN – Associated Press

Members of Arizona’s congressional delegation introduced a bill on Monday that would facilitate an agreement on water rights with three Indian tribes in the southwest, thus ensuring greater security in the arid region.

The proposal is costly at $5 billion – more than any other agreement of its kind that Congress would ever pass.

Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly of Arizona said the legislation represents a historic step forward in resolving a decades-long conflict with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi and San Juan tribes of the Southern Paiute.

The bill would ratify a settlement approved by each of the tribes in May. In total, the tribes would be guaranteed access to more than 56,000 acre-feet of Colorado River water, as well as specific groundwater rights and protections. The bill would also create a homeland for the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe.

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The funds in the bill would be distributed to special trust funds to finance the construction and maintenance of water development and supply projects, including a $1.75 billion distribution pipeline.

“Securing water rights for these tribes preserves their sovereignty and paves the way for their growth and prosperity through increased investment in water infrastructure,” Kelly said.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona said the federal government’s commitment to indigenous peoples to provide drinking water is more urgent than ever as climate change exacerbates what he called a multigenerational drought.

Robbin Preston Jr., tribal president of the San Juan Southern Paiute, said the opportunities created by the legislation would change the lives of his people.

“With reliable electricity, water and housing, our people will have opportunities we have never had before,” he said in a statement. “This bill is more than a water rights settlement, it is the establishment of an exclusive reservation for a tribe that will no longer be forced to live like strangers on our own land.”

While efforts to negotiate a settlement have been ongoing for generations, tribal leaders said ongoing drought and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic were among the challenges that dominated the latest round of talks.

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