(NEW YORK) MintPress — Arizona Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republican, will be back in their home state this week, but they likely won’t be greeted with open arms. McCain and Kyl are travelling to Tuba City, the Navajo Nation‘s largest community, and the headquarters of the Western Navajo Agency. The Hopi town of Moenkopi is next door.
They’re hoping to gain the backing of local tribal leaders for Senate Bill 2109, the “Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012,” which they introduced on February 14. But there’s no love lost between the Arizona senators and its Native American population.
S.2109 is “A bill to approve the settlement of water rights claims of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the allottees of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe in the State of Arizona, to authorize construction of municipal water projects relating to the water rights claims, to resolve litigation against the United States concerning Colorado River operations affecting the States of California, Arizona, and Nevada, and for other purposes.”
A summary on Senator Kyl’s website states that the bill “ Requires all water rights of the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to be held in trust for the Nation, the Tribe, and their allottees. Directs the Bureau of Reclamation, subject to the availability of appropriations, to plan, design, and construct.”
Navajo spokesperson Ed Becenti, who has lived on the Navajo Reservation his entire life, sees S.2091 differently. Writing in Native Condition, Becenti says the bill “is on a fast track to give Arizona corporations and water interests a ‘present’ that will close the door forever on Navajo and Hopi food and water sovereignty security and self-reliance.”
Becenti argues that the bill is stacked against them. It asks the Navajo and Hopi peoples to waive their priority water rights to the surface waters of the Little Colorado River “from time immemorial and thereafter, forever” in return for the promise of unspecified federal appropriations to supply drinking water to a handful of reservation communities.
“S.2109 and the “Settlement Agreement,” contends Becenti, “deny the Navajo and Hopi people the resources and means to bank their own waters, or to recharge their aquifers depleted and damaged by the mining and energy corporations that S.2109 benefit.”
He says the agreement would “require Navajo and Hopi to give Peabody Coal Mining Company and the Salt River Project and other owners of the Navajo Generating Station tens of thousands of acre-feet of Navajo and Hopi water annually, without any compensation.”
Yet, Becenti adds, “the Navajo and Hopi peoples do not even know the full extent and nature of the rights they are being pressured to waive because the details of the ‘Settlement Agreement’ are not being shared with the public.”
A sufficient supply of irrigated agriculture and water conservation projects is critical to the local population’s ability to grow high-value income and employment-producing livestock and crops. Not to mention its ability to provide proper nutrition for their communities.
According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights “It has long been recognized that Native Americans are dying of diabetes, alcoholism, tuberculosis, suicide, and other health conditions at shocking rates. Beyond disturbingly high mortality rates, Native Americans also suffer a significantly lower health status and disproportionate rates of disease compared with all other Americans.”
State of controversy
S.2109 is not the only contentious bill threatening to undermine the welfare of Arizona residents, nor is that state the only one in the West facing controversial legislative efforts. Two weeks ago, for example, Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R) signed a bill into law demanding that Congress give the state 30 million acres of federal land located in Utah by 2015 or it will sue.
Behind all of these bills: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), founded in 1973 by the right-wing activist Paul Weyrich. Funded by some of America’s biggest corporations, including Koch Industries, BP, Exxon Mobil, and Shell, ALEC writes and supplies fully drafted bills to state legislators.
According to the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC has drafted bills that undermine unions, fight against environmental protection, advocate tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy and promote the privatization of public services. Lawmakers in Utah and Arizona have said the bills demanding that Congress turn over public lands to the states are also endorsed by ALEC.
Supporters of the bills say the federal government has mismanaged public lands and prevented states from developing natural resources, such as timber and minerals. One of the bill’s Arizona co-sponsors, Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen, said she believed the measure would allow the state to reopen land near the Grand Canyon for uranium mining.
Critics of the bills argue not only are they unconstitutional, but they also pose a threat to the future of public lands, which could lose many of the protections that the federal government enforces. Opponents also suggest states are ill-equipped to take over management of so much land and all the roads and other infrastructure that go along with it.
As Navajo spokesman Ed Becenti said of S2109, “This is coercive and wrong.”