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U.S. Senate passes plan to deliver drinking water to Utah Navajos

Flags drape the west side of the U.S. Capitol building as groups rehearse for Friday’s inauguration. Marc Giauque, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah members of the Navajo Nation, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, would no longer have to haul water to their homes under a bill the U.S. Senate passed this week.

Sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and two Arizona senators, the legislation would end decades of conflict among the Navajo Nation, the federal government and Utah over water rights.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted the Navajo Nation in our state, and the shortage of running water in nearly half of homes is contributing to the spread, “ Romney said.

The Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act would provide access to water and wastewater facilities for the Navajo Nation as well as a water delivery system.

The bill would provide the Navajo Nation with the right to 81,500 acre-feet of water a year from Utah’s Colorado River Basin apportionment. It would allocate $210 million for water projects to help provide clean drinking water to tribal members. Utah would contribute $8 million toward the settlement, which the state has already approved.

The Navajo Nation welcomed passage of the bill as it continues to struggle to address COVID-19, said President Jonathan Nez.

“Providing clean water for the Navajo people is a challenging task and we have worked with our friends in Congress and across the country to move this important measure forward,” he said.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, introduced a House version of the bill in January 2019. GOP Reps. John Curtis and Chris Stewart and Democrat Ben McAdams signed on as co-sponsors.