The United States, the Navajo Nation, and the State of New Mexico hosted a series of meetings June 22 – 29, 2011. The purpose of the meetings were to allow all parties involved including the public to obtain information and voice any concerns on the adjudication of water rights claims of the Navajo Nation within the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico. The next step of the process is an “inter se” proceeding. An “inter se” proceeding allows all water rights claimants to object to the water rights of another claimant. It is standard process in the adjudication of water rights. The Navajo Inter Se is scheduled for October 3, 2011.
What are Water Rights?
“Water Rights” refer to the amount of water a person (or other legal party) has the right to use, typically, on an annual basis from a given source. These rights quantify how much water a person can divert from a well, stream, or other source for beneficial use. In the western sates, priority dates are attached to water rights. Parties with older (senior) priority rights are allowed to make full beneficial use of their water rights before those with junior priorities.
The Prior Appropriations Doctrine
Under most western state laws, priority is based on the date the user first put the water to beneficial use. Indians have not been appropriated water to the same extents as non-Indians. According to this doctrine, Navajo Nation water rights would be very junior to those of many non-Indians, even though Navajos have been here longer.
What is the process of obtaining Navajo Water Rights?
The process of quantifying Indian water is long and complex. Great amounts of time and money are required for lawyers and for technical experts. In 1952, the US Supreme Court determined that the McCarran Amendment allows Indian water rights to be adjudicated in state courts. Court cases deal with specific river basins or watersheds. If a river basin lies in more than one state, like the Little Colorado River Basin, it must be adjudicated separately in each state.
The difference between Negotiations and Litigation
Some tribes have been able to negotiate rather than litigate their water rights. One advantage of negotiated Indian water settlements is that funding from Federal and State governments for water development projects can be more readily obtained.
Navajo Efforts to Obtain Water Rights
Based on the interpretation of laws and court cases, the Navajo Nation is entitled to water. However, the water rights of the Navajo Nation have not been fully quantified by adjudication or settlement for the Navajo People. The Nation, however, has successfully negotiated settlement of its claims to water rights in the San Juan River Basin of New Mexico and the Colorado River. It is still actively quantifying its water rights in the basins of the Colorado River, Little Colorado River, San Juan River (UT), Rio San Jose, and the Zuni River. The resulting litigation or negotiated settlements will ensure that the water rights of the Navajo People will be protected for future generations.