By The Associated Press

Federal, state and tribal officials gathered Saturday in western New Mexico to break ground on the massive Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project.

The 280-mile, $1 billion pipeline project will serve more than 43 Navajo communities in New Mexico and Arizona, the city of Gallup and a portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation in northern New Mexico.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was among the officials at the ceremony. He pointed to the project as one of the Obama administration's priorities, saying it will honor commitments to tribal nations and help resolve long-standing water disputes.

"It is simply unacceptable that four in 10 members of the Navajo Nation must haul their water — often over long distances," Salazar said in a statement. "This project will be an engine for economic growth, create jobs and supply the lifeblood for communities that have been without running water for far too long."

Legislation passed by Congress in 2009 settled Navajo water rights claims in the San Juan River Basin and authorized a pipeline to serve Gallup and Navajo communities in New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The project will divert 37,764 acre-feet of water each year from the San Juan River and a reservoir, and send it through treatment plants to meet the water needs of 250,000 in American Indian communities.

The project was among 14 that the administration selected for expedited review as part of the president's effort to more quickly approve job-creating infrastructure projects. The project will build two water treatment plants, 24 pumping plants and numerous water regulation and storage facilities on and near the Navajo reservation.

Federal officials said the first water delivery to Navajo communities could happen in two to three years, but it will take at least 12 years to complete the entire project.

The initial stage of construction, which began with Saturday's groundbreaking ceremony, is expected to create about 450 jobs. Idaho-based McMillen LLC will be placing the first four miles of pipeline near the Navajo community of Twin Lakes.

Navajo President Ben Shelly said his tribe is looking forward to the benefits the project is expected to bring.

Bureau of Reclamation officials said they have worked with other agencies and the Navajo Nation to find ways to move quickly on obtaining environmental permits and meeting other construction requirements.

Bureau of Reclamation Commissioner Michael Connor called Saturday a proud day and described the Indian water rights settlements that have been reached over the past three years as unprecedented and historic.

"To see the Navajo-Gallup project break ground is to be reminded that consensus-building and cooperation can bring about real and lasting change for communities that still do not have clean and reliable water supplies," he said.