November 13, 2020

To’Hajiilee President, WALH laud water deal

I-40 West: Exit 131 - To’hajiilee (CC BY-SA 2.0) by formulanone

To'Hajiilee is located about 20 miles west of Albuquerque.

After two years of planning and months of negotiations, the Navajo community of To’Hajiilee announced an agreement that will deliver much-needed water to residents.

Mark Begay, president of the To’Hajiilee chapter of the Navajo Nation, called the settlement a historic occasion. 

“I am a Marine Corps veteran, and it’s only fitting that this agreement came on Veterans Day,” Begay said during a virtual press conference Friday afternoon. “I’m overwhelmed with emotions: joy, happiness.”

To’Hajiilee, located 20 miles west of Albuquerque, is home to roughly 2,500 residents who all rely on just one supply well, which pumps water up from the Rio Puerco aquifer. The water levels in the aquifer have dropped in recent decades, and what water that’s left is filled with corrosive dissolved solids that eat through the pump equipment and wreak havoc on the indoor plumbing systems of the residents in To’Hajiilee.

RELATED: A ‘humanitarian crisis’: To’Hajiilee’s aquifer is running out of water

The Navajo Nation owns rights to surface water that could be piped into To’Hajiilee and serve the community. To’Hajiilee and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority (ABCWUA) have already devised a project plan to build a pipeline that would transport the water from a holding tank in the county’s far western boundaries to To’Hajiilee.

The Navajo Nation needed to acquire easements across four parcels of private land to complete the project. Negotiations between the Nation and one property owner, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH), turned sour earlier this year when the company suggested that the To’Hajiilee community wanted access to water to open a casino. 

RELATED: Indigenous leaders and activists call for solution for To’Hajiilee water crisis

State Senator Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, who was brought in to help negotiate an agreement between the Navajo Nation and WALH as a third party, called the deal a “success story.”

“It is, I think, unfathomable that anybody in the United States of America should not have access to reliable, potable drinking water—and particularly for one of our Indigenous communities here within the boundaries of Bernalillo County, not to have access to potable water is a humanitarian tragedy,” Ivey-Soto said. 

But Ivey-Soto mentioned that not all the issues had been ironed out yet. 

“We are near [an] agreement with everybody on all issues,” he said. “There is one last little issue that they are resolving but they’re thinking that they will be able to have a finalized agreement by, by early next week.”

“Western Albuquerque Land Holdings and the Navajo Nation have come to the agreement with regard to not only the use of land for traversing the water, but also for—along with the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority—the use of the water [infrastructure],” Ivey-Soto said, referring to pump stations and pipelines. “It looks like at this point we have the agreements in place so that all the barriers have been removed.”

Jeff Garrett, president of Garrett Development Corporation of Arizona, which represents WALH, said he is “excited to see the water move from Bernalillo County to To’Hajiilee.”

“We’re here to help our neighbors and our friends at To’Hajiilee,” Garrett said. 

U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, who represents the state’s 1st Congressional District covering Albuquerque, also applauded the deal. 

“Every community deserves clean water for drinking, cooking, and to maintain their health, but To’Hajiilee didn’t have access to water in their community,” Haaland said in a statement. “Now, the To’Hajiilee Chapter of the Navajo Nation can look forward to clean, potable water.”