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Navajo leaders call special session on proposed Little Colorado water-rights deal

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WASHINGTON – Navajo Nation leaders have scheduled a special session Thursday morning to take up a proposed settlement of tribal water-rights claims to water from the Little Colorado River basin.

The settlement plan, introduced in Congress earlier this year by Arizona Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, would have the government build water-delivery systems for the Navajo and Hopi in exchange for the tribes relinquishing their claims. A companion bill has been introduced in the House by Reps. Ben Quayle, R-Phoenix, and Paul Gosar, R-Flagstaff.

Tribal leaders have expressed support for the deal, but it has run into considerable opposition at public hearings before both the Hopi and Navajo people.

But Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly has said the deal would grant the Hopi and Navajo people much-needed water and the Navajo Nation administration openly favors the settlement, said Erny Zah, a spokesman for Shelly. But he said that is not necessarily the same as support for the bill.

“The president supports the settlement, but the main discussion is whether or not to support the bill that Kyl has produced,” Zah said.

Kyl has said the bill will not proceed without tribal support. Neither he nor McCain could be reached Tuesday to comment on the Navajo special session.

While the settlement would provide much-needed water, some tribal members have said it would come at a cost – namely tribal traditions and beliefs, said former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva.

This week’s planned Navajo meeting follows two votes on the issue last month by the Hopi. The tribal council first voted to reject the plan, then voted less than a week later to work with Congress on the issue, apparently backtracking from its earlier decision.

Masayesva said the bill has faced opposition from both tribes from the time it was introduced. He said Kyl introduced the Little Colorado River settlement in the Senate before either tribe had the opportunity to present it to their people.

The Navajo Nation has been collecting comments from the public, which is “overwhelmingly against it,” said Jerome Clark, a spokesman for Navajo Speaker Johnny Naize, who scheduled Thursday’s special session.

Zah conceded that the bill has faced opposition in both public hearings and tribal committee meetings, which might not bode well for its future. But he cautioned against predicting too much based on those hearings.

“Navajo politics is a whole ‘nother ball game,” he said. “It is leaning to either turning it into a referendum vote for the people or they (tribal leaders) are going pass it.”