After a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic and social unrest, one marginalized community in Utah is close to receiving critical help from the federal government.
On Dec. 21, Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a $2.3 trillion spending bill. Among the bill’s provisions for the military and COVID-19 relief, the legislation includes the long-awaited Utah Navajo Rights Settlement Act.
President Donald Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law on Dec. 27, even after describing it as “wasteful and unnecessary.”
“This is truly a historic milestone for the Navajo people and the state of Utah,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez wrote on Dec. 21. “The COVID-19 pandemic has punctuated our critical need for more clean water resources to keep our people safe and healthy.”
Nez thanked the bill’s supporters in Congress and Navajo water rights activists, who have been pursuing water rights on the reservation for years.
The Utah Navajo Rights Settlement Act was introduced by Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) in 2019. The Senate unanimously passed the bipartisan Utah Navajo Rights Settlement Act in June of 2020, which delineates 81,500-acre-feet of water from Utah’s portion of the Colorado River Basin for Utah’s portion of the Navajo Nation.
Utah has never formally recognized the water rights of the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation, which lies entirely within San Juan County, despite the reservation existing 30 years before the state was established.
Along with the much-needed water supply, the act allocates $220 million specifically for water-related projects in the region, where over 40% of households lack running water. Residents are dependent on wells, support from nonprofit organizations, and public taps for potable water in the arid, dry climate. Many transport heavy jugs of water from these distant water sources back to their homes — a risky and expensive process during a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected Indigenous Americans.
For months, the Utah Navajo Rights Settlement Act saw no progress in the House of Representatives before it was rolled into the Consolidated Appropriations Act.
“The legislation which passed today includes several measures which I have been fighting for and that are important for Utah,” said Romney. “The Navajo Nation, which faces among the highest COVID infection rates in the country, will finally have access to running water.”
The bill’s passage came at a time of celebration and hope for many on the Navajo Nation: The fourth anniversary of Bears Ears’ designation as a United States National Monument. After being diminished in size by 85% by President Trump in 2017, President-Elect Joe Biden has pledged to restore the monument to its original boundaries — a move endorsed by the San Juan County Commission and multiple tribes with ties to the ancestral site. At their Jan. 5 meeting, the Grand County Commission also approved a letter to the Biden administration supporting the restoration of Bears Ears.
“The declaration of this monument — the first successful monument proposed by Tribes in history — was a signal of great change taking place in the field of conservation, land management, and Tribal relations with the U.S. government; Native voices and perspectives would finally be given real influence in the oversight of their ancestral homelands,” read the official statement from the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition on the monument’s anniversary.
“This year has been hard for so many of us, especially in Indian Country. While we look to heal ourselves, our communities, and the land, we remain optimistic and hopeful for the road ahead and the opportunities it will provide us to create a more just and resilient future,” the statement continued.
And that future is fast approaching. The appointment of Congressman Deb Haaland (D-NM), a Laguna Pueblo woman, to Secretary of the Interior within the Biden Administration, marks the first time a Native American will join the Cabinet. The Department of the Interior manages waters, wildlife, public lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Indian Education and has often been at odds with Native American populations.
“[U]plifting an Indigenous Pueblo woman to lead in this role is a monumental moment for all of Indian Country,” wrote the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.“If Haaland’s nomination is confirmed by the Senate, we may finally turn the page on a shameful history of environmental trauma inflicted upon the Land, Indigenous communities, and our non-human relatives and begin writing a new chapter where the original occupants of the United States are included.”