Remote Navajo Nation homes in Utah have running water for first time thanks to nonprofit DigDeep

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donovan Smallcanyon drives 1,200 gallons of water down a steep section of road to Piute Mesa in Utah on his water delivery route with the nonprofit DigDeep on July 1, 2020.

Editor’s note • This is Part 2 of a three-part series from The Salt Lake Tribune, Report for America and the Solutions Journalism Network covering water access on the Navajo Nation in Utah. Part 1 looked at challenges associated with water access, and Part 3 looks at long-term solutions for increasing water availability on the Navajo Nation.

Piute Mesa • Donovan Smallcanyon remembers to lock the hubs of his F-450 just before the road turns to sand. With 1,200 gallons of water lashed to his truck’s flatbed in a domed plastic tank, there’s always a danger of getting stuck on the remote reaches of Piute Mesa south of Lake Powell.

For several long stretches of his water delivery route — especially when it hasn’t rained for a few weeks — the road might as well be a dune field, and Smallcanyon keeps his speed up, fishtailing slightly through the orange sand as the water sloshes in the tank.

He has gotten to know the roads in this part of the northern Navajo Nation well since last year when he started working for DigDeep, a nonprofit that installed underground cisterns at 17 homes on Piute Mesa, bringing residents in-home plumbing for the first time. Smallcanyon’s job as a solar and water technician is to keep the solar-powered systems and propane hot water heaters working, and to fill up the cisterns at least once a month, which can require a dozen trips down the rough, 40-mile dirt road from Shonto, Ariz., to the homes north of the Utah line in San Juan County.

[RELATED STORY: For many on the Navajo Nation, getting water requires travel, a wait in long lines and lots of patience]

Delivery days are long. Smallcanyon, a member of the Navajo Nation who grew up in Flagstaff, Ariz., leaves his family house in Navajo Mountain at 6 a.m. and often doesn’t return until he has made two trips to Piute Mesa and back to town to refill, a 12- or 13-hour shift, depending on the day. Some households go through their 1,200-gallon cistern in a month, he said, others require only a top off.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donovan Smallcanyon, a solar and water technician on the Navajo Water Project for DigDeep, manuvers a 250-gallon water tank in Dilkon, Ariz., June 23, 2020. Smallcanyon keeps solar-powered panel systems and propane hot water heaters working and fills cisterns at least once a month for residents in Navajo Mountain and Piute Mesa in San Juan County.

“Elders know how to preserve and save their water,” Smallcanyon said, “and they don’t use as much as the younger people.”

But some elders have come to rely on his trips through the area for more than just water. When one older man who lives alone on the mesa hears the whine of Smallcanyon’s engine grinding down slickrock ledges on a steep section of road, he’ll come to the roadside to ask Smallcanyon, a 31-year-old who runs ultramarathons, for a hand unloading hay for his sheep. Before the coronavirus pandemic, another woman on the route would always insist Smallcanyon and his DigDeep colleagues stop in for lunch with corn and squash from her garden.

“You talk with people who are still living off of the land, who are still doing the same traditions as my grandmother used to do, [such as] herding sheep,” said Shanna Yazzie (Diné), the project manager for DigDeep’s work in the Navajo Mountain Chapter, which includes Piute Mesa. “They’re skilled in basket making. You’ll see people who are still weaving.”

The traditional knowledge and practices are tied to the landscape, Yazzie said, but on Piute Mesa, that comes with isolation and off-grid living. Yazzie said the bonds she has been able to forge with elders has been one of the greatest rewards of the Navajo Mountain project, and those relationships have been key to keeping elders informed and safe during the pandemic.

“My heart warms when I meet them,” she said. “I lost my grandmother three years ago, so when I see them, I’m like, ‘Do you have everything? Do we need to chop wood? Do we need to bring in buckets of water before the home water system is up? What do we need to do?’”

Harrison Ross, a resident of Piute Mesa and one of the beneficiaries of the DigDeep program, said his life has gotten easier since a cistern was installed at his house last fall, requiring fewer trips to the unregulated public water tap on the north end of the mesa and giving him the convenience of indoor plumbing.

“So far it’s all good,” he said. “I enjoy it. The only thing that’s kind of spooky has been getting used to the water pump going on.” Since winter, Ross has been recovering from back surgery, and he said the water deliveries have made it possible for him to stay home and heal.

Water to everyone

Over 2 million Americans lack running water, according to an analysis prepared by DigDeep last year, and Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack indoor plumbing than white households. DigDeep’s goal is to bring water to every American, and its Navajo Water Project has been expanding rapidly in recent years. It now has 13 staffers who work on projects in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

“I didn’t have running water or electricity [growing up in Cameron, Ariz.],” Yazzie said. “At 18, I went off to college, and I moved around to cities from Flagstaff to Elko [Nev.] to Kansas City [Mo.] and kind of got the experience of living off the rez. It was really good because everywhere I went had running water.”

Last year, Yazzie, 38, moved back to Cameron from Phoenix with her children and with the goal of returning to traditional life. “I said, ‘I’m going to live off the grid,‘” she recalled. “I’m going to live in my grandma’s hogan. I’m going to haul water. If I can figure out how to put up solar panels, I’m going to do that. And I’m going to live a simple life.”

That plan came together, and recently Yazzie has been hauling her own water and sleeping out under the summer stars to escape the heat. But when she applied for the DigDeep job on a whim last year, her life became a little more complicated once again. She had to juggle school schedules for her 7-year-old son with her work.

“It’s been a wonderful journey,” Yazzie said. “I love what I do. I come from a background — and I still live the life — of hauling water. To make it easier for a household is just heartwarming and it makes me feel good. I would rather do this before getting running water at all. That’s just kind of the upbringing: You serve others before you serve yourself.”

The mid-term goal of DigDeep’s water delivery programs is to help chapter houses, the local branches of Navajo Nation government, buy their own water trucks and start their own delivery programs. And the ultimate goal is to hook up as many homes as possible to water utilities, although that might never be possible in areas like Piute Mesa.

But when the coronavirus pandemic hit the Navajo Nation in March, DigDeep found itself moving in the opposite direction, responding to the immediate crisis instead of the long-term needs of tribal members.

“We had to figure out what relief work looks like and how to make it successful,” said Emma Robbins (Diné), director of DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project. The organization helped distribute bottled water and ordered dozens of 250-gallon, aboveground tanks that can be installed more quickly and cheaply than the underground systems on Piute Mesa.

Water hauling can add an additional coronavirus vector for vulnerable populations, Robbins said. “It’s not just hand-washing. … You can have a lockdown on the reservation, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t still have to go to stores [often in off-reservation border towns] and come back,” potentially exposing themselves to the coronavirus on the way.

In late June, a semitruck filled with the 250-gallon water tanks was delivered to Dilkon, Ariz., to be distributed to homes serviced by a DigDeep water and solar technician who fills up tanks in the area and checks in on elders for coronavirus assistance.

Social distancing

Troubleshooting problems with the system has become much more difficult during the pandemic, Yazzie said, and she has been forced to guide residents through technical fixes over the phone or through a window to maintain social distancing.

In early July, she accompanied Smallcanyon on his delivery route and checked in with residents like Ross and others. Near the far northern end of the mesa, close to a windmill-powered well that DigDeep hopes to retrofit soon to make it a fill-up point for Smallcanyon’s truck, Yazzie stopped to meet Anthony Atene, whose electric pump recently gave out.

Atene was outside when Yazzie arrived, going through his old routine of water hauling, which required filling up 55-gallon barrels at the windmill and siphoning them into a tank outside his house. The process was slow: Move barrels, prime the siphon, fill the tank, and move the water indoors with buckets.

He paused his work when Yazzie arrived, and she coached him through checking the fuses on the pump. When that failed, Atene removed it completely so Yazzie could take it back to the shop. Meanwhile, Smallcanyon emptied the tank on this truck and turned back south to make another two-hour trip to town for a refill.

Atene said he’s looking forward to getting the DigDeep system up and running again. “It was awesome when they first installed it,” he said. “We saved money on gas going back and forth to the windmill, and it was easier.”

But maybe the best part, he said, was having hot, running water for the first time during winter months. “Before you had to sit there and boil it, wait for it to get hot,” he said. “It was so nice to just have it come out of the faucet.”

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.