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Navajo Indian Irrigation Project
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General Description| Plan| Development| Benefits


General Description

The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project is on an elevated plain south of the San Juan River, in San Juan County in northwestern New Mexico. It is bordered by New Mexico State Highway 44 on the east and the Chaco Canyon in the west. Project lands range from 5,250 to 6,450 feet above sea level, and are from 100 to 1,000 feet above the San Juan River. The project area has a temperate and semiarid climate, with a growing season of about 160 days. The annual avearage precipitation is only about 8 inches.

The project is being exclusively for Navajo use on lands on or next to the Navajo Reservation. The Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for the design and construction of irrigation facilities through the turnouts at the individual farm units. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, in cooperation with the Navajo Nation, is responsible for developing the farm units, farm distribution systems, drainage, and farm-to-market roads.

Based on an economic analysis made in 1973, the entire Project was designed for full-sprinkler irrigation. The project facilities are being constructed in eleven blocks of approximately 10,000 acres each were developed for irrigation. Seven blocks are currently under irrigation.

The development created a large municipal and industrial water use in the San Juan Basin. Therefore, the authorization provides for these uses in addition to irrigation, but stipulates that separate contracts for such uses must first be executed and approved by the Congress.

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Irrigation water is released at Navajo Dam through a diversion headworks. Irrigation water travels through a series of approximately 48.8 miles of concrete lined open canals, 1.2 miles of membrane lined open canals, 7 tunnels totaling 12.8 miles in length, 15 siphons totaling 7.1 miles in length, and a 1.5-mile-long in-line earth channel and reservoir behind Cutter Dam. Three pumping plants lift water to concrete lined open laterals. At full capacity, the system will carry 1,800 cubic feet per second. Two open lateral systems, totaling 40.6 miles in length, convey water to the southern and eastern parts of the development.

Water is distributed ti the turnouts at the individual farm units through about 340 miles of underground pipe lateral systems ranging from 6 to 84 inches in diameter.

Facility Descriptions

Navajo Dam and Reservoir

Navajo Dam, one of the key structures of the Upper Colorado River development, is in the deep and curving canyon of the San Juan River, 39 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. The reservoir, formed by the earth and rockfill structure, extends 35 miles upstream, has a maximum storage capacity of 1,709,000 acre-feet of water, and is designed for multiple purposes. It provides the storage required for the project in addition to regulating flows of the San Juan River. It also provides recreational and fish and wildlife conservation facilities. A penstock was installed in the outlet works which permitted the development of a downstream powerplant. This powerplant has been developed by the city of Farmington for municipal power production.

Construction of the dam was started during the summer of 1958 and was completed during the fall of 1962. The total cost of Navajo Dam and the appurtenant structures was $36, 634,560.

Navajo Dam Powerplant

Project plans originally included construction of a 23-megawatt powerplant and switchyard at Navajo Dam to furnish a part of the energy required by the project. Construction of the plant and purchase of the related equipment started between 1974 and 1976. The United States District Judge for the United States District Court for the District of Columbia ordered that construction of the Navajo Dam powerplant cease. The decision cited the inadequate Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and lack of authority to construct the plant. After the project concluded further environmental studies on the river, the effects of a powerplant, and initiated action to complete a new EIS and obtain authorization, the city of Farmington applied with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to construct a powerplant at Navajo Dam for their use. The FERC issued a license to the city of Farmington to construct the powerplant. The plant has been built to provide power to the city's customers.

The powerplant is adjacent to the downstream toe of Navajo Dam, with a capacity of 23,000 kilowatts.

Electrical Facilities

Other electrical facilities include two substations and 164 miles of transmission and distribution lines, which have a capacity ranging from 2.4 to 115 kilovolts. There will be about 84.6 miles of 34.5 to 230 kilovolt lines, extending into irrigation Blocks 4 through 11, for booster pumps and canal conveyance check structures.

Natural gas lines serve Blocks 1,2, and 3.

Drain System

The drain system includes 200 miles of collector drains to handle 10- and 25-year frequency storm runoff and irrigation return flow. These drains are trapezoidal, with 2:1 side slopes. The slope of the drain is designed to provide a maximum 3 feet per second to prevent erosion. They are unlined, with base widths ranging from 4 to 10 feet.

Pumping Plants

The Kutz Pumping Plant is east of New Mexico State Highway 44. It lifts water from the Main Canal to Coury Lateral which flows southward through Block 5. Using 5 electric motor-driven pumps, this plant has a capacity of 200 cubic feet per second with a dynamic head of 365 feet. It was completed in 1982.

The Gallegos Pumping Plant is near where the Main Canal crosses Gallegos Canyon. It lifts water from the Main Canal to Burnham Lateral, Stage 1. It has 8 electric motor-driven pumps, and has a capacity of 880 cubic feet per second, with a total dynamic head of 337 feet. It was completed in 2000.

Construction on the Moncisco Pumping Plant is scheduled to begin in 2003. It will lift water into the Burnham lateral, Stage 2, and open channel lateral, which will provide water for pumping plants to irrigate Blocks 10 and 11. Current design estimates call for this pumping plant to have a total capacity of 440 cfs and a total dynamic head of 168 feet.

Canal System

The Main Canal conveys water from Navajo Reservoir to the project lands and provides water to iumping plants in irrigation Blocks 1, 4, and 5. In addition, it supplies water to the Gravity Main Canal, the Amarillo Canal, and Burnham and Coury Laterals. It was completed in 1977. The Main Canal has a capacity ranging from 1,800 to 1,285 cubic feet per second and consists of 25.75 miles of concrete lined, open channel canals, 11.51 miles of tunnels, 7.35 miles of siphons, a flume about 500 feet long, a 0.6 mile unlined canal, and a dam and reservoir ( Cutter Dam [http://www.usbr.gov/dataweb/dams/nm00121.htm] and Reservoir).

Cutter Dam is an earth and rockfill dam about 95 feet high above the riverbed, 145 feet high above the foundation. It has a crest lengthtof 956 feet and a crest width of 30 feet. It is 478 feet wide at the base. The reservoir is .9 mile and has an area of 63.5 acres at normal water surface. It has a storage capacity of 700 acre-feet.

The Gravity Main Canal continues off of the westernmost point of the Main Canal at West Gallegos Wash and flows northwest approximately 14.5 miles. It provides water for irrigation Block 2 and part of irrigation Block 6. It consists of 12.5 miles of concrete lined, open channel canals, a 1.4 mile tunnel, and 0.3 mile of siphons. It was completed in 1977.

Amarillo Canal branches off the Gravity Main Canal at Amarillo Canyon and extends westward. It provides water to intermediate pumping plants, which provide water to irrigation Blocks 3, 7 and part of 6. It consists of 11.3 miles of concrete lined, open channel canals and siphon about 500 feet long. It was completed in 1978.

Lateral System

The Coury, Burnham West, Burnham Stage 1, and Burnham Stage 2 Laterals total about 21.6 miles. These laterals are concrete-lined, trapezoidal sections, with 1 and 1/2 :1 or 2:1 side slopes. The base widths range from 5 to 14 feet and water depths range from 3.5 to 9 feet. Capacity ranges from 75 to 595 cubic feet per second.

A closed pressure distribution system will consist of about 340 miles of underground pipelines. These pipes will range from 6 to 96 inches in diameter and will distribute water to the farm turnouts.

Operating Agencies

Reclamation's responsibility is to design and construct the irrigation facilities from the headworks at Navajo Dam through the individual farm turnouts. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Navajo Nation are responsible for developing farm units, including the farm distribution systme, drainage, and farm improvements. The Navajo Nation established the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI) to farm the project. Reclamation transferred the operation and maintenance of the completed project facilities to NAPI in 1985.

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In the 14th or 15th century, the Navajo Nation migrated southward into the present day southwest. In the early 1600`s, the Navajo Nation acquired sheep and horses from the Spaniards and developed skills in weaving and metal craft. They remained nomadic, moving the sheep to new pastures when forage became scarce.

Federal troops which attempted to confine the Navajos to definite living areas met with resistance. Treaties signed by representatives of the Navajo Nation were not understood since those who signed them represented only a small segment of the Navajo Nation. After years of misunderstandings, many of the Navajos were forced to move south to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, although some small bands eluded their would-be captors. Those who were captured were allowed to return to their homes 3 years later, after the treaty of 1868 was ratified. The treaty provided that the Navajo Nation could return to their homeland, and restricted the lands on which the Navajos could live. This has become the largest reservation in the United States, encompassing about 24,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.The lands were fertile but required water to make them productive.


In the early 1900`s, a survey party studied the rugged terrain around the Pine and San Juan Rivers in the area of the present Navajo Dam for possible development of an irrigation system. In 1909, the party reported that the project was feasible, but the report failed to arouse interest. In 1925, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reinvestigated and determined that the project was not practical under existing economic conditions.

In 1953, the Governor of New Mexico asked the Federal Government to develop a project that would use waters of the San Juan River to irrigate lands adjacent to and within the Navajo Reservation. The Secretary of the Interior promptly directed the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to cooperate in an investigation of such a project. Through the cooperative efforts of the two bureaus, a feasibility report dated January 1955 was prepared. This study was supplemented in 1957 and was followed by authorization of the project.

The Navajo Indian Irrigation Project, as originally authorized, provided for the development of 77,543 acres of land east of the Chaco River and 33,087 acres west of the Chaco. In 1966, a complete reevaluation of the project was conducted. The reevaluation report, approved by the Secretary of the Interior on December 20, 1966, established a plan for development of 110,630 acres east of Chaco Wash, excluding all project lands lying west of Chaco Wash. This plan of development was subsequently authorized by the amendment of September 23, 1970, Public Law 91-416.

In 1973, a joint study was made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation to determine the feasibility of sprinkler irrigation. The resulting report recommended that an all-sprinkler system would be economically advantageous and more efficient since the lands were predominantly sandy and rolling.


On June 13, 1962, the Congress authorized construction of the project under provisions of Public Law 87-483. The authorization was amended September 25, 1970, by Public Law 91-416. The project was authorized as a participating project of the Upper Colorado River Storage Prject. It is a Bureau of Indian Affairs project to be constructed under Indian laws.


Construction on the project began in 1964 with the Main Canal headworks and Tunnel No. 1. By the end of 1977, construction was completed on the 46.3-mile Main Canal, the 14.5-mile Gravity Main Canal, the underground pipe lateral distribution systems for Blocks 1 and 2, and the Block 1 drains. Construction of the Navajo Dam Powerplant and Switchyard began in 1977. It was terminated in the same year by court order pending further environmental impact studies. Remaining project features and blocks were completed over the succeeding years to allow for orderly progress and development of the lands.

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When the project was first authorized, project lands provided very poor grazing for livestock. These lands were considered irrigable and well suited for cultivation and production of adaped crops. With irrigation, these lands produce small grains, hay, forage, vegetables, and fruits. Lands are devoted primarily to alfalfa, corn, pinto and other dry beans, potatoes , grain, sorghums, and irrigated pasture, with some acreage devloted to orchards or other vegetables.

Blocks 1 through 7 (about 63,881 acres) are presently irrigated, and Block 8 is under construction. All other project lands are currently used for grazing.


The Navajo Indian population is estimated to be 300,000 in 2000.

Irrigation benefits from the project will greatly improve the standard of living for the Navajo people. Economic projections indicated that the project could create new industry and stimulate trade in related business. It is estimated that the project will provide a substantial part of the livelihood for about 17,000 Navajo people directly from on-farm operations. About 16,000 additional people would obtain a substantial part of their livelihood from the agriculturally oriented industries stemming from the development of the project.

The project construction is expected to generate about 8,400 staff-years of on-site work and to require an equivalent of more than 12,000 staff-years of work in other areas throughout the country in providing the necessary services, materials, and equipment. Another 27,000 staff-years of employment will result from the increased demands by on and offsite workers for such items as cloting, food, furniture, gasoline, and other consumer goods.

Facilities required in the project area to serve the needs of the farm families include schools, housing, farm buildings, roads, fences, and utility installations. There are also increased demands for such equipment as farm machinery, trucks, and automobiles.


Wildlife and recreational benefits have increased on the irrigated lands and in the wooded and hilly areas to the east of the area. Fishing and picnicking around Cutter Reservoir are attractions.

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Last updated: May 11, 2011