Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 14, 2014

Robyn Jackson 'What water really costs' Dine' Grassroots defend water at Tucson conference

What Water Really Costs: Diné Grassroots at Water Conference in Tucson

Photos and article by Robyn Jackson
Censored News
Dutch translation NAIS

TUCSON -- How would you define “quality of life?" For a group of Navajo water rights advocates, “quality of life” includes respect, equality, health, and consideration. Yet, at this year’s Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) Annual Conference, held in Tucson, Arizona, on April 7, 2014, the phrase had a very different meaning for representatives of the cities that make up central and southern Arizona. These cities have long grown accustomed to abundant access to good water through the Central Arizona Project (CAP), a 336 mile canal that draws water from the Colorado River, transporting it across central and southern Arizona.  It remains the most expensive water project constructed in the U.S.

I attended this conference with a group of Navajo grassroots people.  We understand that respect for water is respect for life, yet water is blatantly disrespected and taken advantage of in cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, Scottsdale, and Fountain Hills, to provide wasteful and extravagant luxuries. Outside many buildings are outdoor spray mists that quickly evaporate in the desert heat. The town of Fountain Hill is known for its fountain that spews water 560 feet in the air, every hour for 15 minutes. An aerial view reveals the number of backyard swimming pools and large irrigation fields. All of this and much more is ongoing in the Sonoran desert. How is this infrastructure and lifestyle sustainable? How much longer can this go on, especially given increasingly drier climate predictions due to global warming?

Interestingly and revealingly, a related concern was indeed brought up at the Water Resources Research Center conference. One individual commented on how western states are receiving less precipitation and eastern states have seen increased snow and rainfall, so perhaps southern Arizona should acquire more water from those states. This comment illustrates how extracting water from elsewhere is an easy thought process for much of central and southern Arizona’s population. CAP has made this population unaccountable to their surroundings.

There appears to be a general lack of awareness of the impact of unsustainable water imports on everyone else. Consideration for other people and communities is lacking. There were a few exceptions, some participants of the conference expressed concern and advocated for water conservation and sustainability. Yet there is a great deal that still needs to happen for true equality and for social and environmental justice. For example, at the beginning of the conference and throughout, it was made clear by many speakers that water for revenue receives first priority. Everything else comes afterwards. Water for people, water for our health and environment all comes after turning a profit from water. Industries like power plants are already guaranteed water use. There was no discussion on how these entities and other industries could lessen their water consumption. There was only limited discussion on conservation and recycling methods.

To speak to this great disparity with water allocation and usage were a group of Navajo grassroots representatives who traveled to Tucson and attended the one day conference, which cost $125 per person to attend. This Navajo group had to be persistent in securing a presentation slot for one Diné Water Rights activist, who was eventually included on a panel. She spoke about the water realities of her community on the Western side of the Navajo reservation, though it is similar across all of the reservation. 

The communities of the Black Mesa area have long witnessed the drying up of natural springs that are the result of the massive draw-down of the Navajo aquifer from Peabody coal mining operations.  
This mine provides coal to Navajo Generating Station, which then relays power to the Central Arizona Project. This means Navajos pay twice for southern Arizona's cheap water:  Navajo rights to the Colorado River are ignored, then Navajo land and groundwater are degraded to provide the cheap energy needed to pump that water over the mountains.  Navajo livelihoods and health are compromised.  None of CAP benefits the Navajo people.
At noon four other Diné water rights activists were allowed the opportunity to comment during lunch. The first speaker described the extreme difference between living conditions in central and southern Arizona, and on the Navajo Nation. He asked conference participants if a swimming pool in every backyard was necessary. Another grassroots activist brought up the exclusion of Native American representation in the 1922 Colorado River Compact. Export of our region’s water was already planned long before we were allowed a place at the table.

One Navajo Nation government representative spoke as well. This was Jason John, who is with the Navajo Department of Water Resources. Additionally, former Navajo council delegate George Arthur, now member of the Colorado Water Users Association, presented. While these individuals act as liaisons for Navajo and tribal interests, their presentations were lacking. Primarily their talk addressed barriers the Navajo people face in acquiring access to the Colorado River. No solutions or assertion of our water claims was presented. With such presentations, it was difficult to have confidence in their ability to be the best advocates for our people.
Confidence was already suffering after another Navajo government representative, Navajo Nation Department of Justice attorney Stanley Pollack, gave a lecture hosted by the University of Arizona, titled: “Little Colorado River: Failure of the Settlement and the Triumph of Social Media.” Pollack claimed that the most recent attempt to minimize Navajo water rights, SB2109, failed because grassroots groups spread misconceptions through social media. After much published resentment by Diné water rights activists, at not being allowed to rebut Pollack’s lecture, the University of Arizona later hosted a panel of Navajo and Hopi water rights activists to present their perspective on SB2109.  Every step of the way our water warriors have had to persist in getting their voices included.

Diné Water Rights representatives strongly reminded conference participants, many of whom represented utilities, industry, and federal, state, and city governments, and everyone else who could afford the $125 registration fee, that they are the world’s privileged. While they divvy up how the Colorado River will be allocated and to what purpose and benefit, the rest of us have been making do with what little we receive or don’t receive. More than anything else, our grassroots representatives reminded the other half, the privileged and elite, that we are here and we will speak for ourselves. We will fight for our rights, our future, and we will most certainly resist continued exploitation and injustice against our lands, water and people. They cannot expect the rest of us to make concession after concession while they continue to live extravagantly, taking more than they need and sacrificing the

Navajo people and others quality of life for their leisure.

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