Window closing on water settlement; other issues more promising

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 5, 2012

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I f the Navajo Nation Council fails to approve a Senate bill laying out a settlement of the nation's rights to the Little Colorado drainage today, it could mean curtains for the controversial legislation, the director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office said Monday.

At the moment, Senate Bill 2109 is "in a holding pattern" while Congress awaits approval of the Navajo Nation, Clara Pratte reported in an interview at her office.

"There's some misinformation that (senators) Kyl and McCain are trying to push this through behind our back," Pratte said. "The fact is, it's a settlement and they can't do anything without the approval of the Navajo and Hopi people."

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation's pending litigation over its water rights - which SB 2109 would settle - is suspended until 2013.

This isn't that long when one considers there are only 20 more working days in the current legislative session, Pratte noted.

"The judges have basically said, 'OK, we'll give you a stay on this case while you try and work things out,'" she explained. "If we can't come to an agreement after all these months, it's unlikely they'd be willing to do that again."

If the case goes to trial, Navajo could stand to lose even the water rights it currently has, Pratte said.

"What people don't understand is that water rights are determined by the state, and if the Arizona court rules against us, it would be difficult to appeal that decision beyond the state level," she said.

Back on Navajo, the Naa'bik'iyati Committee has voted down the proposed settlement bill, which goes before the Council today (Thursday). Speaker Johnny Naize, who sponsored the settlement legislation, said the Senate bill and the settlement agreement will be discussed as two separate issues - but without legislation, the settlement can't be enforced.

Some Council delegates have suggested renegotiating the settlement, but Pratte said if that happens, there's virtually no chance of getting a new bill before Congress in the current session, and with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., retiring after this session, no guarantee the next Arizona senator will champion a settlement.

Pratte said she understands the strong feelings surrounding the bill.

"Water rights make people crazy, and they should make people crazy," she said.

In other Navajo-related news on the Hill:

  • Appropriations bills languished, with veto threats against four that have passed the House. This means the omnibus budget bills won't likely pass until March, leaving the country on a continuing resolution once again ... but "We're prepared," Pratte said. "Navajo shouldn't face any issues on having to reduce programs if the program managers have planned wisely."
  • The Violence Against Women Act is "probably going to go through," Pratte predicted, but some Republicans oppose the provision to try non-Indian perpetrators in tribal courts, saying the tribal courts aren't bound by Constitutional standards of civil rights. Pratte said there is potential for a compromise, such as having federal observers at tribal court proceedings for non-Native defendants.
  • A provision in the recently passed transportation bill circumvents efforts by the National Park Service to increase natural quiet in the Grand Canyon, which could pave the way for the tribe to develop air tourism over the spectacular western rim. Residents in the area, however, supported the Park Service's efforts to limit flights and may continue to oppose increased air traffic above their homes.
  • The Stafford Act, which would allow tribes to make state-of-emergency requests directly to the federal government, is facing little opposition and Pratte predicts "they'll finish it this session." Currently, tribal governments must go through the states on which their reservations are located, sometimes holding up federal aid for months.
  • Education reform seems "fairly stalled, unfortunately," Pratte said. The Native Class Act, which would forward-fund scholarships for Native American students so they don't have to wait to be reimbursed, is a hard sell in the present fiscal climate, Pratte said. "It's not going to go anywhere in this Congress," she predicted.
  • The Navajo Housing Authority will be in for a large chunk of money if it can spend it in a timely manner. Between Native American Housing and Self Determination funds and block grants, $650 million will be coming at Navajo ... but it has to be used by 2017. "The NHA has been famous for backlogged projects in the past, but we're more prepared for it now," Pratte said. "They're moving forward with their housing plan, and if you look at the rate of expenditure in relation to the amount we get, our size and the scope of our projects, we actually spend the money faster than other tribes."

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