FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Navajo Nation’s approval of a lease extension for a coal-fired power plant on the reservation came after hours of contentious debate and a slew of amendments.
The legislation signed by tribal President Ben Shelly on Tuesday extends the lease from 2019 to 2044 and boosts yearly payments to the tribe from $3 million to $43 million.
It also provides the tribe a shot at partial ownership of the power plant near Page.
Lawmakers on Monday tacked on more than a dozen amendments to the lease and accompanying legislation. Included is the reinstatement of a $1 million signing bonus and preference in employment so long as it’s permitted by federal law.
One of the more highly debated amendments dealt with water from the upper Colorado River basin. Salt River Project, which operates the plant on behalf of the owners, has said it uses water from a 50,000 acre-foot allocation for Arizona to run the plant. But the Navajo Nation wants assurances from the owners of NGS that they won’t hinder or oppose any claim the tribe would make to that water or a higher amount.
SRP delivers water to more than 2.5 million people in central Arizona, including large parts of metropolitan Phoenix, and has aggressively fought for water supplies in other parts of the state. Spokesman Scott Harelson said Tuesday that without knowing how much water the Navajo Nation could claim, the amendment is one “we would have deep concern with.”
Tribal lawmaker Dwight Witherspoon, the sole nay vote on the lease extension, said he took issue with the Navajo Nation not including a hiring preference specifically for Navajos and not being able to sell the water for use at NGS should the tribe successfully obtain the rights to it.
“Just on principle, I couldn’t on good conscience approve it,” he said in an interview.