Looking for water on the Rez

Non-profit group helps 250 homes on eastern Rez find clean water, hopes to expand operation

Darlene Arviso delivers clean water to a family in the Smith Lake area. She delivers 4,000 gallons of water to as many families in Smith Lake as she can, often working 14-hour days. Photo/Heather Gildroy

Darlene Arviso delivers clean water to a family in the Smith Lake area. She delivers 4,000 gallons of water to as many families in Smith Lake as she can, often working 14-hour days. Photo/Heather Gildroy

Thirteen percent of Native Americans do not have access to running water. DIGDEEP is a non-profit that believes water access is a human right. The group is working on the Navajo Reservation to help bring that percentage down.

DIGDEEP is partnering with St. Bonaventure Indian Mission to bring reliable clean water access to more than 250 homes on the eastern Navajo reservation through the Navajo Water Project.

The St. Bonaventure Indian Mission delivers a limited amount of water to the Smith Lake area from a well, which is about 70 miles away. The mission is a non-profit, which provides tuition-free schooling and essential services to thousands of Navajos around Thoreau, N.M.

By the middle of the month, most families are forced to collect additional water from other sources like open livestock troughs.

Many keep their water in buckets and barrels on their front porches, which are prone to contamination and must be moved inside during the winter.

The DIGDEEP project started about a year ago. The group secured ownership of a project site and has complied with necessary regulatory oversight with the state and with the Navajo Nation. It has completed a ground water survey. The project will dig a new 2,000 foot deep well in the middle of the Smith Lake where water can be pumped into a holding tank to fill local water trucks.

The project will also provide emergency access to free drinking water on site. The Navajo Water Project will provide every home with an elevated water tank and solar heating element, using gravity to feed sinks and toilets year round. Families will also benefit from free, trucked water delivery to their homes in the amount that meets international human rights standards.

DIGDEEP founder and executive director George McGraw said, like every DIGDEEP project, this system is location-specific, community-led and truly sustainable.

Cindy Howe, a Navajo chapter secretary and local project lead, said DIGDEEP worked with, and got approval from, the chapter houses in the area. The eastern Navajo Nation council supported this project through a resolution.

"We had a lot of people on board trying to get this project going. They understand the need," Howe said. "This project is going to be located in the middle of the reservation so that the people can come and get their water there and they don't have to drive all the way to someplace like Gallup. I don't want to see that anymore. I want us to have indoor plumbing, indoor running water."

DIGDEEP works internationally in places like South Sudan, Kashmir and Cameroon to build sustainable water projects and water systems in places where people are more aware of the water crisis.

But McGraw said that water poverty exists right here at home.

He said typically when people are talking about water access issues in the United States they are referring to the urban homeless or migrant workers. But studies have shown that 13 percent of Native Americans do not have access to running water. For non-Native Americans that number is 0.6 percent. An average household in the United States consumes 110 gallons of water per-person-per-day. On the Navajo reservation, thousands of Navajos use less than 10 gallons of water per-day.

"The fact that 40 percent, at last estimate, of Navajo families have to haul water, meaning they don't have a tap or toilet at home is insane," McGraw said. "That is a worse access rate than a lot of sub-Saharan African countries."

Howe said that on the reservation houses are spread out and sometimes many miles apart and families do not always have transportation so they rely on rain that comes off the buildings or snow melt for water.

"This is the kind of thing that really bothers me," she said. "I want our people to, just like anyone else, have running water... especially for our young people. I don't want my grandkids, my great grandkids to be in the same situation as my grandmas and my grandpas are in right now."

A comparable project in Cameroon, to bring piped underground water access to about 7,000 people, took about a year and half and about $80,000-$90,000. The project in Smith Lake will take about three years to complete and about $450,000 and will only serve about 300 to 400 people.

McGraw said in addition to everything costing more in the United States, building relationships and trust takes time, and there is a more practical reason for the timeframe as well.

"It is just the conditions on that part of the reservation," he said. "In Cameroon the water is so close to the surface but in this part of New Mexico, clean water is about 1,400 or 1,500 feet deep to start. And when we pull up water, we have to pull it from the right aquifers to avoid things like heavy metal or uranium contamination."

McGraw recalled a family from his first time riding the water truck who lived in a small house with 10 or 12 people. The house had no running water or electricity or toilet.

The water truck delivered about 400 gallons of water that was expected to last the family a month. The average person uses more than 100 gallons a day. The first thing the family did with the water was to bring it into the kitchen so that the mother could finish preparing tamales, which she then took in an insulated backpack into town so she could sell them. This was so she could get enough gas to drive to Albuquerque to visit her husband who had been in the hospital with an unidentified disease for six months.

"That just goes to show how much that water is needed," McGraw said. "Without water there's no income. Without income there's no mobility. Without mobility there's no health. Without health there's no chance for future income or mobility. It's just an insane cycle."

That experience is not unique. McGraw estimates that there are about 56,000 Navajos who are living in the same conditions. DIGDEEP plans to expand not only on the Navajo reservation but to other reservations and to other populations who need access to clean reliable water across the United States.

More information is available from the http://www.navajowaterproject.org or www.digdeepwater.org.

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