Flagstaff, Navajo tribe reach tentative water deal

Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) June 2011

Flagstaff has reached a tentative deal with the Navajo Nation that will allow the city to pump millions of gallons of water a day from a ranch near the reservation.

The agreement, which was reached after months of negotiations, lets the city pump as much as 7 million gallons a day from the so-called C-Aquifer, City Manager Kevin Burke told the Arizona Daily Sun newspaper.

If approved by the City Council and Navajo Attorney General, the deal will settle all outstanding legal claims between the city and the tribe. As part of the tentative agreement, the Navajo Nation will not file any legal claims related to the city drilling, pumping or delivering water to Flagstaff from Red Gap Ranch, which borders the Navajo Nation.

In February, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly had threatened to seek an injunction against the city in an attempt to block the city’s plans to begin drilling under a state-approved permit.

Burke said that under the deal, he city will be allowed to begin drilling six water wells at the 8,500-acre Red Gap Ranch 35 miles east of Flagstaff right away. Although the wells would be drilled, the city is at least a decade away from needing the water and a pipeline won’t be built for years to bring it to town.

The city uses between 7 million and 13 million gallons of potable water a day, depending on the season. Supplies now come from deep wells in and near the city and from Upper Lake Mary. The extra water is enough to cover the city’s needs for an estimated 80 years, given historic growth levels, existing supplies and current water restrictions.

City taxpayers have covered the drilling costs, but the pipeline to get the water to Flagstaff could cost up to $200 million and remains unfunded.

The city initially had wanted to pump as much as 12,000 acre-feet of water a year, but the agreement limits pumping to roughly 8,000 acre-feet of water a year, said Burke. An acre-foot of water is about what two families of four people each use in a year.

Restrictions also limit pumping volume within two miles of the reservation boundary.

City voters in 2004 approved the sale of $15 million in municipal bonds in order to acquire and/or develop property or water rights. Part of the money was used to buy the Red Gap Ranch in 2005.

The Navajo Nation and Flagstaff also are part of multi-party Colorado Plateau water talks that could result in the Navajo Nation supplying water to area cities and towns out of its proposed allotment from the Colorado River without tapping area aquifers.

One proposal has the Navajo Nation being awarded $800 million to help fund a pipeline system if it agrees to a lower allotment. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl recently expressed doubts that Congress would approve that large a grant and suggested new terms would need to be negotiated.