Birdsprings Chapter members treading water as they wait for flood relief

Birdsprings residents evacuate family members from flood waters in August 2021. Flooding is a common event in the Birdsprings Chapter, however, snowmelt has made flooding extreme this year. (Photo/Mitzi Begay)

Birdsprings residents evacuate family members from flood waters in August 2021. Flooding is a common event in the Birdsprings Chapter, however, snowmelt has made flooding extreme this year. (Photo/Mitzi Begay)

BIRDSPRINGS, Ariz. — Federal emergency funds are on the way to the Navajo Nation and it cannot come soon enough for the residents of the Birdsprings Chapter and the community of Chinle.

Severe winter storms rolled through the Navajo and Hopi communities earlier this year, dropping heavy snow which resulted in flooding and severely damaged roads. Birdsprings and Chinle were just two communities heavily impacted.

The Birdsprings area began to experience flooding in mid-March, and on April 21, when a berm breached, flooding also began wreaking havoc on Chinle residents living along Chinle Wash.

Since the flooding began, resources have been deployed from the Navajo Nation, including Navajo Division of Transportation, Navajo Engineering Construction Authority, IHS, Apache County, Rubicon, American Red Cross, Navajo Technical University, and the Chinle and the Birdsprings chapters, according to the Navajo Nation President's Office.

A Jan. 19 state of emergency declaration by the Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management remains in effect to address the on-going need for resources, and on April 11, President Joe Biden approved a disaster declaration for the Navajo Nation and ordered federal aid to supplement tribal efforts.

The Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President did not respond to a request for comment about how the funds will be used, but President Buu Nygren said in a social media post that his office is working to assist flooding efforts and “has spared no expense or equipment to help Chinle residents affected by flood waters from overflow released by Wheatfields Lake and Tsaile Lake.”

In the Birdsprings community, which lies north of Winslow and east of Leupp on the Navajo Nation, flooding this year has been extreme.

“Our house is flooded, and the other houses behind us are flooded,” said Birdsprings resident Brittany Taylor. “The water is coming down and creating islands. Portions of the houses are deteriorating and we’re afraid they could collapse with more water.”

The water is coming from watersheds to the east of the community, said Mitzi Begay, Birdsprings Chapter secretary-treasurer.

“Within two to three days our area completely flooded, and nobody was prepared for it,” she said.

According to data in the 2021 Navajo Nation Long-range Transportation Plan, there are 16,317 miles of road on the Navajo Nation. Of those miles, just 14 percent, or 2,284 miles are paved leaving the remaining 14,032 miles to become swampy bogs in the spring and violent washboards in the summer.

There are approximately 100 homes in the Birdsprings area, which is situated in the southwestern portion of the Navajo Nation. The chapter land base is divided by the Little Colorado River that flows to the northwest.

Begay said there are roughly 28 homes along State Route 99 that are routinely impacted by flooding.

“Some do live on higher ground, but when the Little Colorado floods, they don’t have a way to get out,” she said. “So our staff has been busy delivering hay and firewood, because the weather’s still been cold.”

Begay said approximately 95 percent of the residents of Birdsprings do not have indoor plumbing or electricity.

“So firewood is a big thing,” she said. “Sometimes with the flooding they lose their firewood and their livestock are stuck in one place. So we try to get them hay, feed and water, which is very difficult.”

Begay said the Birdsprings area experienced approximately 10 flooding events last year when the monsoons began in the summer.

“The only difference between that to now is that after those floodings the waters would recede within maybe three to five days and we were able to repair the roads and families were able to get home,” she said. “This time we’re going into almost two months now.”

Begay said maintenance crews from Navajo Department of Transportation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have returned to the area, after being setback earlier because the area was constantly flooding.

“They just completely stopped at one point because it washed out the road again, it’s just frustrating because the water runs directly toward those homes that are in the area,” she said.

One of the problems with the flooding in Birdsprings is an area bridge that exacerbates the flooding in the area.

“All of Birdsprings is in a flooding area,” Begay said. “When the bridge was first built, it was fine and it didn’t look as low as it does now. But like any river, the sediment flows and it now settles there and meets the bottom of the bridge.”

Begay said debris flows down to the bridge creating a dam.

“Now no matter how much NDOT or BIA cleans the bridge out, it still happens year after year,” Begay said. “And now the water is finding a new path. It doesn’t even go directly where its supposed to with the Little Colorado River on to Leupp and then Grand Falls. Now it has found a path to the residences.”

Begay said the Army Corps of Engineers has funding for an assessment to be done about the bridge, but is awaiting direction from the Navajo Nation. Begay said they are considering levees or berms to redirect the river.

“That bridge is a huge issue,” she said. “We have refrigerators, we have tires, we have dead animals, we have huge logs. All this trash, ice chests, helium tanks, even commodes, and they just block off the bridge, she said.”

The Navajo Nation is held in trust for the Navajo people. On the Navajo Nation, land ownership is understood by each family and the community. The ownership is passed down matrilineally through each family. A homesite lease, allocated by the Navajo tribal government, gives property rights to families living on the Navajo Nation.

“With the Navajo Nation, everything depends on homesite leases,” she said. “Some family members aren’t allowing other family members to get homesite leases, and this is a problem when they ask for assistance from the Navajo Nation government.”

Begay said it’s a challenge to live in the Birdsprings area, but the community has ties with the area since generations of families have lived there.

“I’m not going anywhere because that’s where my great-grandparents live,” she said. “That’s where our grazing permits are and homesite leases.”

Begay said when the flooding began, the Birdsprings Chapter had to purchase a boat to access some of the residents in the area.

“The water was just flowing down the road, and it’s actually really strong and can knock you off your feet,” she said. “I know of several homes that have water and mud inside and now their floors and walls are damaged with mold starting to creep up the drywall. Some residents are having to put pallets down so they can move their furniture, their beds, and their tables off the floor so they don’t get soaked. Many people don’t have trucks or vehicles to move their property out of their homes.”

Begay said she also is concerned about the community’s drinking water.

“Last year it got really bad, so we contacted Winslow Indian Health Care and the EPA came out to test the river water,” she said. “They said there was nothing harmful, but when you walked into homes there was a distinct smell.”

Begay said she has been grateful for emergency assistance from Coconino and Navajo counties, Navajo Emergency Management, Army Corps of Engineers and others.

“A lot of our residents have health issues and some are diabetic and need their medicine refrigerated,” she said. “So when their generators run out of gas that’s a whole other problem again.”

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