The struggle to bring water to Navajo Mountain

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About 70 families in a remote part of the Navajo Nation near the Arizona-Utah border will get a new system of wells and pipes this year that will deliver safe water to their kitchens and baths.

The new system, in the Navajo Mountain Chapter northeast of Page, Ariz., will bring water from new wells to replace an old spring-fed system that was vulnerable to contamination by livestock and other sources.

But affected residents aren’t jumping for joy at the news – they’ve been waiting so long, said Navajo Mountain Chapter President Alex Bitsinnie, that they’ll believe it when they see it.

“We were supposed to have water two years ago,” he said. “We were excited two years ago.”

The Navajo Mountain system serves to illustrate the complexities of bringing water to people on the reservation who lack it. It’s not as cheap or simple as building pipes. And it highlights the widespread need that remains.

The IHS reports a backlog of water projects; it would cost $600 million to provide drinking water for all the people living on the reservation who lack it, according to David McDonnell. He’s chief of the Technical Services Section of the Indian Health Service’s Division of Sanitation Facilities Construction.

There’s a wide gap between the IHS count of people who lack running water on the reservation – about 5,500 homes – and a recent estimate out of Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly’s office. Erny Zah, spokesman for the president, says up to 40 percent of Navajo people are living without safe running water. Based on his population estimate of 320,000 people, that’s well over 100,000 people.

Long road

The school and homes at the Navajo Mountain community of Rainbow Village, where the new system will go online, has been served by a couple of springs on the side of Navajo Mountain, explained Navajo Nation hydrologist Jason John. The tribe’s Department of Water Resources has operated the existing system.

“The issue in the past was the lack of water during times of drought and water-quality problems due to fires that created erosion issues at the springs,” John said. “The community is growing and more residents want to get access to water, but the system was limited in its ability to meet those needs.”

McDonnell added that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got involved because, although the water has
been chlorinated and monitored, additional filtration is needed to make it safe.

At a cost approaching $10 million, the new system has required a decade of cooperation among the Navajo Nation, the state of Utah, Utah’s San Juan County, the EPA, the federal Indian Health Service, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Army Corps of Engineers. It will have taken about a decade from inception to completion by the time it’s done; the average wait for an IHS water project is about four years.

“It was a long process to get all these other agencies to kick in,” McDonnell explained.

The hydrology wasn’t straightforward, either.

“A series of unsuccessful exploration wells and alternatives analysis led to the decision to import N-aquifer groundwater from the Inscription House area,” said John, referring to another Navajo community north of Rainbow Village. He said the various agencies have worked diligently since 2003 to get the water line into Navajo Mountain. Once it’s completed, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority will take over the job of operating and maintaining it.

The new waterline will also be positioned to serve new customers on the reservation between Inscription House and Navajo Mountain, he said.

Piecemeal solutions

McDonnell said he’s not surprised at the wide gap between the estimates of unmet needs on the Navajo Nation.

“Thirty percent, 40 percent, those numbers have been around for a long time,” he said. “It all depends on how you define it, whether [the existing systems] are satisfactory, whether they’re including the number of people that have adequate plumbing facilities.” But no one debates the need for water infrastructure – or the sometimes daunting challenges in getting it.

“The biggest challenge that we run into in getting water to people is funding,” said Zah.

He said there’s no blanket solution for the entire Navajo Nation. People interested in developing water projects can sometimes look to their chapters for funding.

“IHS has been known to build water lines,” he added, “also NTUA. There’s no one way to bring water to individual homes on a large-scale basis. There’s not a clearinghouse for these types of programs.”

Because of those challenges, the Navajo Nation leadership has tried to secure water and infrastructure by way of water settlements that turn aboriginal water claims into usable water rights. The most recently completed settlement, on the San Juan River, carried the promise of a pipeline, the $1 billion Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, to deliver drinking water to 12,000 homes. Construction is already under way on two sections of pipeline, north and south of Farmington.

Hopes of more new water projects were dashed earlier this year when the Navajo Nation Council and the Hopi Tribal Council both voted down the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012, also known as Senate Bill 2109. That bill contained provisions for new water infrastructure on both the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

On the Hopi side, a new well field near the western village of Moenkopi could have supplied clean drinking water across all the villages to Keams Canyon on the reservation’s eastern end. Such a supply would have bypassed a litany of contamination issues that plague the villages’ current supplies – from uranium and underground gas leaks near Tuba City on the west side, to naturally occurring arsenic that gets more concentrated in the eastern villages.

The bill had also authorized a feasibility study for the Western Navajo Pipeline. “That one was going to bring water to just about the entire western half of the reservation,” Zah said, adding that it would have been another $1 billion project. In that case, Zah foresaw additional challenges even if the pipeline went in, such as getting the individual homes tapped into the water lines.

That’s generally a whole additional challenge, he said.

“Some of our existing water systems are already strained; they don’t have the ability to handle more development. Window Rock is an example.”

In any case, the Little Colorado River settlement appears to have been killed by opponents who feared some of its less-savory provisions, which included unclearly worded waivers as well as concessions to the controversial Peabody Coal operation and Navajo Generating Station. In its wake, moves are already under way to quantify Little Colorado water rights in court, rather than settle them.

Plugging away

McDonnell said he’s proud of the work that’s been done so far in the Navajo Mountain Chapter, which has about 600 registered voters. “That community is one of the most remote,” he said. “It’s been a big priority for IHS to serve that community for a long time. Hopefully the people out there will have enough patience to wait another nine months or so.”

He said two more IHS projects are planned to start this year that will serve additional homes in the Navajo Mountain area. The first will bring water to 43 more homes at a cost of $967,000, and the second adds 19 more homes at a cost of $437,000.

Each year, the IHS sends an “unmet needs list” to the Navajo Nation president’s office. The most recent one, issued in November, includes about 10 additional projects for the Navajo Mountain Chapter.

Reservation-wide, “There is a great need for sure,” McDonnell said. “There’s a long way to go before we can say the situation is good.” Still, he’s not daunted.

“There’s been significant progress,” he said. “I’ve been here about 15 years now, and our list has shrunk dramatically since I got here.”

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From January 2013.