Westwater, a Navajo community in rural Utah, might finally get running water and electricity

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) This 2010 file photos shows Blanding behind a home in the Westwater community in San Juan County. The roughly two-dozen homes in Westwater lack running water and electricity, but that could change if a $500,000 appropriation request included in Gov. Gary Herbert's 2020 budget is approved.

Westwater • When San Juan County updated its general plan in 2018, it included an official annexation map prepared by Blanding that indicated land the city hoped to incorporate at a future date.

The proposed annexation wrapped to the west of the city in a horseshoe shape, enveloping the Blanding City Reservoir that supplies municipal water to residents but avoiding the 120-acre community of Westwater — a dirt road lined with about two dozen homes along a high ridge that overlooks Blanding’s paved streets.

The map was emblematic of the long and tenuous relationship between the two communities.

Westwater sits on private property owned by the Navajo Nation, though it’s not reservation land. Less than a quarter mile from the city of Blanding, population 3,700, it is just outside city limits.

When night falls, the lights of Blanding shine through the dark windows of Westwater’s homes, which still lack electricity, water and sewer hookups. Residents rely on outhouses and solar showers. They must haul in water — an expensive and time-consuming chore — and depend on kerosene lamps or small solar power systems. Many homes do not have reliable refrigeration for food.

Westwater residents have long debated whether becoming part of the city would be desirable due to higher taxes and more regulation, said Evangeline Gray, who helped establish the Westwater Diné Community with her daughter Pamela King and other residents.

And while Blanding has assisted with developing subsidized housing for residents over the past 60 years, almost everyone agrees the lack of modern utilities remains a serious problem.

“It does not make sense for us to not have water or electricity in our community,” Gray said. “We need water for our people in Westwater.”

The various entities involved — from San Juan County and Blanding to the Navajo Nation — leave Westwater in a jurisdictional no-man’s land that has contributed to the continued lack of amenities.

“It’s just been roadblocks and roadblocks,” King, a teacher from Westwater who is currently living in Colorado, said of past efforts to get water and electricity to the homes. “Everybody hands off the buck: ‘Well, it’s Navajo Nation’s job. It’s the city’s job. It’s the county’s job.’ Everybody passes the ball on to the other entity. And these people are still suffering. … I worry about the kids."

Recently, however, there has been a breakthrough, and a multimillion-dollar collaborative proposal to connect Westwater to water and electricity is finally moving forward.

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, and Larry Echo Hawk, former assistant secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs and current adviser to Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, presented an appropriations request to a committee at the Utah Legislature earlier this month for $500,000 to kick off the four-phase project.

“Beginning in October of 2018, when I began to serve in the state of Utah, I visited all eight federally recognized tribes,” Echo Hawk told the committee. “And of all the needs that I was able to observe, this one was the one that I recommended to the governor for an appropriation.”

If the appropriation is approved by the Legislature, similarly sized grants could come from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Navajo Nation and the Utah Navajo Trust Fund. And Utah Diné Bikéyah (UDB), a Native American-led nonprofit that has been pushing for the Westwater project, is raising additional funds.

Echo Hawk, an emeritus general authority for the LDS Church, referred to the request as humanitarian aid, adding, “The Navajo Nation purchased this land because of the needs of the poor people that were living there in 1986. Efforts have been underway for over 30 years to bring these services into this community.”

Gray noted some major improvements have been made during those three decades. In the past, the unmaintained dirt road through Westwater got so muddy after storms that residents were forced to park on the paved county road to the north and walk to their homes. Thanks to efforts by locals, the road has since been graveled by the county.

And, in 2010, Hearts and Hands, a nonprofit group, installed eight modular homes in Westwater, though unattached electric wires still hang from the meter boxes.

“We’ve seen the road get better,” King said. “We’ve seen the new houses. We’ve seen that come to fruition. So next is electricity, running water, sewage tanks."

Gray, who serves as a UDB board member, said her grandfather was born around the turn of the 20th century near the Bears Ears buttes, the namesake for Bears Ears National Monument. He eventually moved to Westwater to find work in Blanding, and decades later, he died peacefully in his hogan not far from Gray’s family plot of land in Westwater.

Gray is employed as a social worker for the Southern Ute tribe but hopes to retire to Westwater in the coming years if the improvement project succeeds. “This is home,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place to be. ... This is where our heart is.”

Approximately 4,000 people, or 40% of Native Americans living in San Juan County, lack running water in their homes, according to UDB. And some 60,000 people across the Navajo Nation lack electricity, mostly in remote areas.

Given Westwater’s proximity to Blanding, however, the project is seen as the low hanging fruit by Echo Hawk and others, and Herbert agreed to add it to his budget proposal, which is heading toward a vote by the full state House and Senate as part of the budget process. The Utah Navajo Trust Fund, which is funded by oil and gas royalties on the Utah portion of the reservation, and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer also support the effort. Getting all of those entities to collaborate will be easier if the state funds are approved.

“As much as the city of Blanding would love to go and provide services, they do not have the money to do that themselves,” Lyman said. "The county has tried to step in and do some things. It’s expensive. We need bigger players than what we have there locally, so the state is stepping in and the governor’s office. It really provides a conduit for others to help if they want to help, including the city and county.”

There are still many details that need to be worked out but Gray and King are heartened to see so many people, including Lyman, supporting the project. The two spent the last week advocating for the funding in Salt Lake City and are planning a community meeting soon in Westwater.

“It’s exciting and kind of scary, too, because it’s going to be a process,” King said. “But I’m looking forward to one day seeing streetlights, to seeing electricity in people’s homes.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.