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Water Rights of the Dineh-Navajo Tribe, USA


In December of 2010 a court settlement granted the Navajo Nation increased access to and usage of water from the San Juan River. This was the culmination of a long history of legal battles but there is still very strong tension between local agriculture and the Navajo People over water rights and usage.

Former Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) introduced SB 2019, the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement and Act of 2012, in February of that year.

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) was the bill’s only cosponsor. Under this settlement, the Navajo Nation would be required to permanently waive their aboriginal (as in first priority) rights to the Little Colorado River (LCR) watershed in exchange for promises from Congress for two water delivery projects serving two (out of 110) communities.

Additionally, the Nation wanted a comprehensive rather than piecemeal deal and this Settlement was not comprehensive.

It lacked many components the Dineh people asked for.

This settlement also would have supported the ongoing environmental injustices caused by the coal economy on Navajo Nation. More specifically, it would have made water delivery to Navajo and Hopi communities contingent upon the renewal of various leases – for transmission lines, coal and water supplies – for the Navajo Generating Station through 2044.

Another issue is that the settlement did not actually quantify Navajo water rights to the LCR and did not allow for fair compensation for Navajo water from the LCR.

Upstream users were allocated and guaranteed specific amounts of water, even in times of drought, and the Navajo Nation was not.

Lastly, the process to approve the settlement completely excluded the Navajo people and their actual needs for water. It was introduced in a press release from Senator Kyl’s office before it was even introduced to the Navajo Tribal Council and the dense language was never explained to the Navajo People.

The Navajo People organized, educated themselves, and convinced their leaders to vote no.

This will continue to be an issue but for now the bill is dead [].

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Water Rights of the Dineh-Navajo Tribe, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:New Mexico
Location of conflict:San Juan River
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Specific commodities:Water

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Dine’ community members have raised concerns that Northeastern Arizona Indian Water Rights Settlement Agreement (NAIWRSA) gives the Navajo Nation only 31,000 acre-feet per year of 4th Priority Colorado River water, which would not be available in times of drought, and would require more than $500 million of new federal funding to pay for pipeline infrastructure to deliver water to communities in need. The federal funding would have to be appropriated by U.S. Congress ( and historical relations between U.S. government and Dineh Navajo have not seen much fruit.

Water Use (

Total Navajo domestic water use is approximately 12,000 acre-feet annually. Forty percent of the Navajo Nation households haul water for domestic use. Navajo per capita water use on the reservation ranges from 10 gallons per day for water haulers to 100 gallons per day for those living in larger communities and have running water. Most non-Navajo communities in the region use more than 200 gallons per day.

Approximately 20,000 acres of small Navajo farms use approximately 100,000 acre-feet of water annually. This acreage does not include historically irrigated lands.

The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project irrigates approximately 60,000 acres and diverts approximately 206,000 acre-feet per year. When completed, it will irrigate 110,630 acres of land and divert 508,000 acre-feet per year.

The estimated 300,000 permitted animal units obtain water from approximately 900 windmills and 7,000 stock ponds across the Navajo Nation.

Industrial and mining water use in the region is approximately 75,000 acre-feet per year. In Black Mesa, Arizona, the Peabody Coal Company uses approximately 4,500 acre-feet annually.

Note: 1 acre-feet equals 325,851 gallons

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:160-140,000 (2011 Navajo population estimate in Arizona)
Start of the conflict:1950
Relevant government actors:US Government, Navajo Nation, State of Arizona
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Concerned Citizens for Diné Water Rights, Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, Dine’ Care, To’ Nizhoni Ani’, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Council Advocating an Indigenous Manifesto, ECHOES

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Farmers
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Desertification/Drought
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Court decision (victory for environmental justice)
New legislation
Development of alternatives:Former Navajo Nation Chairman Peter MacDonald suggested that Navajos should control and undertake the study of the aquifer themselves and this includes paying for it. He stated that Navajo should not only do a study, but develop the well and own it. Thirdly, he argues that the Navajo Nation must control the usage and allocation of that C-aquifer (the specific aquifer where they get their water from).
MacDonald said that “If anybody wants to use that water that the Navajo Nation developed, then
it’s up to the Navajo Nation how they’re going to allocate that.” If Mohave Generating Station or Peabody want water, he said, “Then, ‘OK, how
much are you willing to pay?’
“Charge for the use of the water. That’s the bottom line so far as I’m concerned, and it’s doable,” MacDonald said. “It’s doable all the way around. And there’s no reason why the Navajo Nation should beg and beg and kneel down to MGS and Southern California Edison and Peabody. They don’t need to do that.” [1]
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The Navajo Nation has endured a long history of environmental injustice with corporations and government agencies continually desecrating their rights. In 2013, the Navajo received a court victory that assured them of their water rights. It is hard to be sure that this will result in subsequent action in line with this law. Only time will tell. Some say the decision will be appealed (

Sources & Materials

Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Proposed Navajo Nation Council Resolution Water Rights Settlement 2010 (Navajo Nation does not support this)

Navajo President Shelly Praises Courts Decision Regarding Navajo Water Rights

Proposed San Juan River Basin in New Mexico Navajo Nation Water Rights Settlement Agreement signed in April 2005 and settlement signed in 2010 that fulfilled the 2005 agreement. This aggrement allocates more than 600,000 acre-feet of diversions and 325,67

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

How Underfunded Native Nonprofits Beat the Odds to Protect Water Rights

In Historic Vote, UN Declares Water a Fundamental Human Right


Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Navajo water rights: Truths and betrayals

Daily Times

Native News Network

From the frontlines of the water wars: Diné and Hopi water rights at risk, protesters gather on Navajo Nation

Navajo Council votes 'No!' to Little Colorado River water rights theft

A long historical campaign of genocide against the Dineh

[1] Diné Water Rights

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Water Rights March Video

Other comments:This is one of the top 40 influential environmental justice cases in the United States identified from a national survey of environmental activists, scholars and other leaders by graduate students at the University of Michigan

Meta information

Contributor:Bernadette Grafton, [email protected], University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment
Last update07/05/2015



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