Navajo Nation’s Shortage of Clean Water Is Impeding Efforts to Control COVID

Growing up in Vanderwagen, an arid, mountainous checker-board region of the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-New Mexico border, Sunny Dooley learned from an early age that safe, clean water was as precious as a rare mineral, and just as hard to find.

Because of naturally occurring uranium and arsenic in the groundwater, the nearest clean well was two miles away. Dooley and her family used to make the trip on foot with steel buckets they would drop down the well before lugging them back, a trail of splashes in the dirt marking the route behind.

Later, when a manual water pump was installed at the well, the water flowed more freely. And when the family purchased a truck, they were able to make the four-mile round-trip in a breeze. Still, water remained a treasured commodity.

“We acclimated to live sparingly with water,” said Dooley, now a distinguished storyteller, who still doesn’t have running water or indoor plumbing in her home. Nowadays, Dooley’s nephew makes the near 20-mile trek in his large truck to the nearby town of Gallup to fill a giant container that provides for Dooley and other members of her family for weeks.

Dooley’s story, however, isn’t an oddity in this great 27,000 square mile swath of land in the Four Corners region of Southwestern U.S. Of the Navajo Nation’s 200,000 plus residents, between 30 and 40 percent have no direct access to running water. Some residents speculate that number is even higher. Half of the Navajo population within the Utah portion of the Nation alone lack indoor plumbing. In a region where the median household income is about half that for the U.S. as a whole, these long, routine treks to find clean water can cost some households hundreds of dollars a month in gas.

The reasons underpinning the Nation’s current clean water crisis date back more than 100 years to a federal Supreme Court ruling that was supposed to favor reservations, but in its application has led to a complex tangle of water rights that impede the Nation’s efforts to provide for its members.

“There’s a bureaucracy of water here,” said Dooley. “Tribal government bureaucracy. New Mexico state bureaucracy. United States government bureaucracy.”

Added to that is a disastrous environmental legacy from drilling and mining projects on the Nation that have destroyed precious water resources, along with climate change’s growing environmental footprint in an area already prone to drought.

In terms of the latest crisis, the coronavirus has hit the Navajo Nation harder than any other region of the U.S. Universal access to clean water would be a “gamechanger” for the Nation, said Sriram Shamasunder, an associate professor with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who recently spent a month helping the Nation through a UCSF program designed to funnel health care workers toward disadvantaged communities.

“My recommendations for COVID are so much of a flat-tax,” said Shamasunder, pointing to good hand hygiene and being able to shelter in place. “It doesn’t work for poor people that don’t have running water.”

It’s no wonder George McGraw, founder and CEO of DigDeep, calls the Navajo Nation’s clean water problems a “life and death” scenario.

“We’re all in this work because we know that race is the strongest predictor of whether or not your family will have access to running water in the U.S. in 2020,” said McGraw, whose organization aims to help bring running water to the more than 2.2 million Americans who don’t even have such basic amenities as sinks and toilets. “No one is more impacted than Indigenous people.”

Winning Limited Water Settlements, Losing Cleanup Rights

Though the Navajo Nation overlaps several major water basins — including the Upper and Lower Basins of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande Basin — regulatory constraints mean the Nation’s primary water sources are the San Juan and Little Colorado River tributaries of the mighty Colorado River. For various reasons, including the sheer size of the reservation coupled with limited infrastructure, the water derived from these sources fail to stretch far enough to meet the demands of the Nation’s residents.

It shouldn’t be this way.

The Navajo Nation’s claims to their local waterways date back to a 1908 Supreme Court decision, Winters v. United States, which gave reservations the legal rights to an amount of water “sufficient to fulfil the reservation’s purpose.” The problem is, the “amount” was never specified, which opened the door to federal and state governments, as well as private industry, to annex the water of the West. Over the years, the Nation has sought formalization of its rights in court, which has resulted in the Nation pursuing settlement agreements with the three states the reservation overlaps: New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

Long gestating legislation in Utah would secure the Nation several rights in the state, including 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from Utah’s Colorado River Basin, along with $210 million in water infrastructure funding that reportedly could bring water to more than 300 homes. Back in 2013, a settlement was formalized between the Navajo and the State of New Mexico, affording the Nation access to water from the San Juan River Basin and massive water development projects.

But many say these settlements have led the Nation to sign away too many of its rights in exchange for too few concessions considering the sheer amount of time the Nation has been deprived what it’s rightfully owed.

Pollution is no minor obstacle to the Nation’s efforts to fix its drinking water issues. Where water infrastructure is lacking, it’s rarely a simple fix of drilling new wells. If clean groundwater is buried too deep, the associated costs can make well-drilling unfeasible, while more accessible groundwater is often contaminated.

More than 70 years of uranium mining on Navajo lands saw 30 million tons of uranium ore removed, leading to widespread groundwater contamination from some 1,100 abandoned mines, mills and associated waste piles, bringing with it human health fears for Navajo residents. Possible health effects from drinking contaminated water include lung and bone cancer, and kidney disease. More than a quarter of Navajo women, along with some babies, tested as part of a recent University of New Mexico study, had higher levels of uranium in their body than that found in the top 5 percent of the U.S. population. Rates of reproductive organ cancers in teenage Navajo girls have been found to be 17 times higher than that of U.S. girls on average.

Uranium mining is one of several environmentally destructive activities on Navajo lands. One recently shuttered coal mining operation run by the Peabody Western Coal Company, a subsidiary of coal giant Peabody Energy, reportedly pulled so much water from an underground aquifer that many wells and springs relying on it ran dry. A surge in oil and gas drilling on Navajo lands comes with serious implications for nearby water resources. One study found that practices like overgrazing have degraded “almost all” of the Nation’s watersheds.

Some of the everyday impacts from the Navajo’s clean water problems are economic. The Navajo home of the mother of Bleu Adams, a Navajo-based small business owner and interim chair of the Native Women Entrepreneurs of Arizona, sits a mere 100 feet from the existing water line and 200 feet from the existing electricity pole. But the permitting and labor costs associated with hooking the home up to a running water system will set them back some $30,000, said Adams. “It’s just how the system is,” she said. Technicalities surrounding home ownership mean that “we have to meet those costs out of pocket.”

The Peabody Western Coal Company’s water-intensive mining operations on Black Mesa, which has led to barren springs and wells, also have spiritual implications for the Colorado Plateau tribal nations, Dooley explained. “Waters coming off the mountains are sacred,” she said. “There are springs underneath these mountains that are utilized for a variety of different ceremonies.”

“How Will I Get Enough Water to Survive?”

The Navajo Water Project, under the umbrella of DigDeep, has delivered hot and cold running water to over 330 Navajo families so far, with plans to serve another 225 this year “at least,” said McGraw. “That work is always urgent,” McGraw added. “How can you get through your day when the first thing you think when you wake up in the morning is not, ‘What does my day look like?’ It’s, ‘How will I get enough water to survive?’”

The Nation has teamed up with Arizona State University (ASU) to explore the feasibility of microgrids on the reservation — a development that could be utilized in systems to pump, treat and deliver clean water where it’s needed, said ASU engineer Nathan Johnson. It’s all about “optimizing the energy and the water system together to deliver the lowest-cost water,” he said. But for practical purposes, this partnership is still in its early stages.

What’s important to note is the Navajo’s desire to fix the problems themselves, said Jo Overton of Protect Native Elders, a program geared around providing needed services to Native elders of multiple tribes. Aside from delivering much needed water storage and supplies to the Nation’s elderly, the program is exploring the possibility of bringing to the Nation solar powered atmospheric water generators, which extract water from the humid air.

“We’re strong,” Overton said. “The Native Americans are taking care of their own.”

Some of these avenues are legal strategies. The Nation recently filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, for example, arguing that the recent 2020 Navigable Waters Protection Rule blunts protections for the Nation’s threatened water resources, potentially impacting federal funding for needed water programs.

The Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project is a massive infrastructure project involving about 280 miles of pipeline, and several pumping and water treatment plants. The sprawling project, already underway, is expected to deliver water to some 250,000 people by 2040. Its genesis was the prior water rights settlement with New Mexico.

Much tighter deadlines, however, threaten the Navajo’s hopes to use some of the $714 million in federal aid it received to fight COVID-19 on water infrastructure projects. If the money isn’t spent by December 30, it might have to be returned.

At the end of the day, this ongoing struggle for clean accessible water promises to have a profound impact on the Nation’s future — just like it has shaped its past.

When a water fight erupted at the public school she attended as a child, Dooley and other Indigenous classmates were “stunned,” she said. “You don’t play with water,” said Dooley. “This is something instilled into you from a very young age.”

Nowadays, Dooley has a saying in her journal: “She knows she was enormously successful because she had a rose garden” — a nod to the flower’s thirsty needs. “That’s how I look at myself. When I have made it in the world, I will have roses.”