San Juan River Utah

1.Basin Overview

Navajo Nation has claims in the San Juan River Basin Utah which lies in the southeast corner of the State. The entire basin also includes areas in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. The area that the San Juan River (River) drains is known as the San Juan River Basin. The basin drains an area of approximately 24,900 square miles.[1]

The River’s headwaters originate in Southern Colorado and flows into New Mexico and then into Utah. Upon entering Utah, it flows along the northern border of Teec Nos Pos Chapter, then along the boundary between Aneth and Red Mesa Chapters, and then along the northern boundaries of Mexican Water, Oljato, and Navajo Mountain Chapters before entering Lake Powell.

2. Hydrology

Originating as snowmelt in the San Juan Mountains (part of the Rocky Mountains) of Colorado, the San Juan River flows 355 miles (571 km) through the deserts of northern New Mexico and southeastern Utah to join the Colorado River at Glen Canyon.[1] The mainstem of the River does not flow through Arizona but comes very close at the Four Corners. There are, however, contributions on the Arizona side from Chinle Creek and Laguna Creek.

The highest point in the San Juan River watershed is at Windom Peak (14,091 feet), located near the headwaters of the Animas River. The lowest elevation, where the San Juan River flows into Lake Powell, has a normal maximum elevation of 3,704 feet but fluctuates dozens of feet per year due to the seasonal nature of runoff in the Colorado River Basin.[2]

According to USGS stream gauge data for the San Juan River near Bluff, UT (09379500), the average discharge of the site is 1,280 cubic feet per second. The San Juan River provides habitat for at least eight native fish species, including potential habitat for the endangered Colorado pikeminnow, razorback sucker, and bonytail chub. Protecting and restoring the critical habitat of the Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker is a primary focus of the San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program (SJRIP), which the Navajo Nation is a part of. These species are only found within the Colorado River Basin.[3]

3. History Regarding Water Rights

On May 27, 2022, the execution of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act (NUWRSA) was initiated with the signing of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Utah Governor Spencer Cox, and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. The agreement concluded 18 years of negotiations and affirmed water rights of Utah Navajos and provides funding for water infrastructure projects in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

The settlement recognizes a reserved water right of 81,500 acre-feet of water annually for current and future use by the Navajo Nation in the state of Utah with senior priority for most of the allocation. The allocation comes from the Utah apportionment of the Upper Colorado River Basin. As part of the settlement, federal funding, along with $8 million from the state of Utah, will amount to over $210 million. This funding will go towards water development and operations, maintenance, and replacement funding within Utah-Navajo Chapters.


4. Current Status: Litigation, Settlements, Etc.

The Navajo Nation and Utah are in the final steps of the NUWRSA adjudication process. A Hydrologic Survey Report (HSR) is being conducted to assess the Nation’s historic, current, and future water uses. In addition, a water infrastructure project plan covered under the $210 million settlement funding is underway. The approval process includes prioritizing water projects, analyzing proposed projects and existing studies, and conferring with local chapters. Funds, which have been set aside in an interest-bearing account, will be released once plans for use of funding are approved by Navajo Nation leadership. 


[1] U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map.
[2] Melancon, Susan M.; Michaud, Terry S.; Thomas, Robert William (Nov 1979). Assessment of Energy Resource Development Impact on Water Quality: The San Juan River Basin. Las Vegas: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
[3] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (2006). San Juan River Basin Recovery Implementation Program Service. 

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