Government, tribes reach regulatory agreement for Navajo-Gallup water project

Scott Wyland, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·3 min read

Apr. 8—State, federal and tribal officials have signed an agreement to better coordinate environmental oversight of a massive, decadelong project to supply drinking water to 250,000 people in northwestern New Mexico by 2040.

The purpose of the agreement is to more clearly define each environmental agency's jurisdiction and regulatory role in the $1 billion Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2027.

San Juan River water eventually will flow to the Navajo Nation's eastern section, the Jicarilla Apache Nation's southwestern portion and the city of Gallup.

The smaller of the two delivery systems, known as the Cutter Lateral, began operating last year and is piping water to eight Navajo chapters with roughly 10,000 users. The larger San Juan lateral is half-finished and will take about six more years to complete.

Officials say the regulatory agreement — cast in a memo of understanding — is a significant step that marks progress being made in the enormous undertaking.

"Shifting from just construction only to water being treated and delivered for consumption moves us into a new stage of this very long project," said Rebecca Roose, director of the state Environment Department's water protection division.

It's crucial to have each agency's responsibilities clearly defined in a project this complex to ensure nothing is overlooked, Roose added.

The other agencies that signed the memorandum are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

Each agency not only has different regulatory duties but oversees different parts of the water system, Roose said.

To date, no conflicts have arisen among the agencies about oversight, she said, noting they've met regularly since 2014 to avoid confusion.

The agreement is "not a course correction," Roose said. "It's keeping on course going forward."

The project will boost water supply in areas where groundwater is severely depleted.

Gallup's groundwater levels have dropped 200 feet in the past 10 years, and 40 percent of Navajo Nation households must haul water from outside sources to meet daily needs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the agency in charge of the project's construction.

Congress obtained funding for the project under the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009. The law was passed as part of the Navajo Nation San Juan River Basin's water rights settlement.

Although ground was broken on the project in 2012, work on the Cutter Lateral didn't begin until 2016, said Bart Deming, a deputy construction engineer for the bureau.

There will be two treatment plants, 19 pumping stations and 300 miles of pipelines when the system is built, Deming said.

Deming agreed the deal between the three environmental agencies is significant.

"It's a big deal getting it completed," Deming said. "It provides clarity for the regulation of the transmission system. It makes it easier to finish the design and construction of the project as well."

Aside from supplying much-needed drinking water, the new system will accommodate growth, he said.

"It's designed to be an economic driver as well as improve public health and living conditions," Deming said.