PHOENIX — Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren today told a special master hearing the Little Colorado River adjudication water rights case that moving to Phoenix as a Navajo college freshman meant he could take a shower all day long if he wanted.
Having grown up hauling water, wondering on winter days if it would be frozen in the morning, traveling 70 miles to a laundromat, conserving every drop and now seeing water flow freely from a dormitory shower head left as much of a lasting impression as being a minority in a sea of diversity.
“I could take showers all day long if I wanted to,” the President said. “I was very happy to not worry about getting up early, if the water was frozen, who was going to take a bath today. I didn’t have to think about any of that. It was nice to just walk in the shower and turn it on. It was a whole new experience.”
President Nygren began opening statements for Phase I of the Navajo Nation’s trial in the General Adjudication of All Rights To Use Water In the Little Colorado River System and Source.
Tribal officials for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe filled the courtroom at the Maricopa County Superior Court. The case was heard by Special Master Sherri Zendri. President Nygren shared stories of his upbringing that included hauling water using buckets.
In response to questions, he explained how important access to water was to his family, adding he didn’t see his life on the reservation as being different, but “normal.”
“My mom saved up some money and we lived in a small travel trailer, probably eight feet by twelve feet — it was pretty old and no running water, no electricity,” said President Nygren, as he explained his upbringing and how they used water stored outside in tanks for their everyday use that included bathing. “I just assumed the water came from the jugs outside.”
Getting water from a nearby windmill in Red Mesa, Utah, meant competing with livestock, the President said.
“I remember there were times when we had to chase the wild horses or cows so we could get in there with our five-gallon buckets,” he said.
Prior to returning to the Navajo Nation to live full time in 2019, he lived in Phoenix but would return home every weekend, driving five-and-a-half hours each way. Why would he do that, he was asked?
“Not only was I doing it, everybody that I know was doing it,” he said. “Whether you’re working down here in the Valley, you always have a sense and a duty to be home. I knew eventually I’d make it home full time, and that’s what I’m very proud of, being on the reservation full time.”
His response to the court reflected the universal sentiment among young Navajos that despite conditions of deprivation experienced daily by thousands of Navajos and Navajo families, given the choice they would return to live on the homeland they grew up on. Economic necessity remains the principle reason they can’t.
President Nygren said he never felt out of place where he grew up, even though he recalled making trips to a laundromat in Farmington, N.M., 70 miles east, to do laundry. After he and his mother got done, they would fill their buckets with water before returning home.
Many Navajo families living along the LCR still haul water as his family did. To help Navajos get access to water is one reason why he decided to run for office, he said.
The LCR is a tributary of the Colorado River in the southwestern U.S. It flows through the states of Arizona and New Mexico.
The LCR adjudication was initiated in 1978. Its purpose is to determine the extent and priority of the water rights within the watershed. This includes rights of the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, and a small portion of the rights of the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
There are 44 Navajo chapters partially or completely situated within the LCR Basin represented by 13 Council Delegates.
The Navajo Nation filed its Statement of Claim in 1985. The Zuni and White Mountain Apache tribes have resolved their water rights claims.
The Phase I trial is expected to last several months.