Editor’s note • This is the last installment 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. Parts 1 and 2 looked at current challenges with water availability and midterm solutions to bringing indoor plumbing to Navajo Nation residents.
Last summer, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sat before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee and pleaded for the passage of a bill that would formalize water rights for the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.
“More than 40% of Navajo households in Utah lack running water or adequate sanitation in their homes,” Nez said in the June 2019 testimony. “In some cases, such as in the community of Oljato on the Arizona-Utah border, a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people. The legislation provides the means to address these critical needs of the Navajo people.”
Nine months later, the critical needs Nez described became even more urgent, after a man unknowingly carried the coronavirus from a baseball tournament in Tucson, Ariz., to the Navajo Nation community of Chinchilbeto, Ariz., not far from the Utah line. The virus spread at a church rally March 7 — the pastor giving the sermon reportedly had a cough — and ripped through the northern Navajo Nation over the next few months, prompting lockdowns, curfews and mask orders.
An elderly woman and her son from Navajo Mountain, Utah, died within days of each other in late March after running out of water in their off-grid home while quarantining with the virus. As of Sunday, COVID-19 had taken 434 lives on the Navajo Nation, which has an on-reservation population of about 174,000. That translates to a higher per capita rate than any U.S. state, and Nez has repeatedly drawn connections between the severity of the outbreak and the lack of running water in so many households.
It was in this context that the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, which Nez testified on behalf of last year, was revived. The settlement formalizes an agreement among Utah, the federal government and the Navajo Nation that was worked out over more than a decade of negotiations. Talks over the deal began in 2003, and the bill was first introduced in Congress by then-Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 2016. Hatch’s successor, Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, reintroduced the legislation last year, but it didn’t pass until June, after the pandemic had turned water availability on the reservation into a national issue.
The House version of the bill, co-sponsored by Utah’s entire congressional delegation — three Republicans and one Democrat — has yet to see a vote.
If it passes into law, the legislation would recognize the Navajo Nation’s right to 81,500 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River Basin each year, and it would provide $210 million in funding for water improvements on Navajo Nation lands in southeastern Utah. An additional $8 million has been approved by the state of Utah.
Expanding water access has broad support among the American public during the coronavirus pandemic. A June poll from Climate Nexus, in partnership with Yale and George Mason universities, found 84% support for allocating federal dollars to provide clean water to the 2 million Americans currently without running water, many of whom live on Native American reservations.
According to Nez, the Utah settlement would save the federal government millions of dollars in litigation costs and help the United States meet its treaty obligations.
“The passage of this legislation will also advance the commitments made in the Treaty of 1868, where Navajo leaders pledged their honor to keep peace with the United States and, in return, the United States pledged to the Navajo people ... their permanent homeland,” Nez said. “In the arid West, it is clear — no lands can be a permanent homeland without an adequate supply of water, especially potable water.”
Even before the pandemic, the public health benefits of water funding were clear. According to an analysis by the Indian Health Service, every dollar the agency spends on home sanitation facilities achieves at least a twentyfold return in health benefits.
“We’re under a very serious pandemic emergency,” said James Adakai, president of the Oljato Chapter and manager for the Navajo Nation Capital Projects Management Department, which works on water and electrical improvements. “We need to get clean water to the homes. To improve the living conditions of Navajo families, we need long-term, reliable water sources, which the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act will provide.”
Adakai said the $218 million in funding from the state and federal governments would be significant seed money but might not be enough to connect all Utah Navajo households to water. In some cases, he said, it could cost between $150,000 and $250,000 to connect a single household.
“This is a big project, running the water lines maybe 20 to 40 miles to very remote communities,” Adakai explained. “Running the line to the home, the drain fields, the septic tanks, the interior plumbing work, the cost of booster stations, water storage tanks, treatment plants — all the construction costs, labor, materials and supplies — it adds up.”
Another potential source of funding is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which passed in March and has so far resulted in $714 million flowing to the Navajo Nation.
The disbursement of the bulk of the funds was delayed by the federal government by nearly two months, and more recently a debate within the Navajo Nation government over how to spend the money has led to additional delays with presidential vetoes and stalemates within the Navajo Nation Council.
The CARES Act money must be spent by Dec. 31 under current rules, and Arlyssa Becenti, government reporter for The Navajo Times, said some constituents worry about time running out.
“They’re not liking the fact that legislative and executive [branches] are fighting over the money and where it should go,” Becenti said, adding that small protests have recently broken out over the issue in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Ariz. Some critics have suggested giving out the money directly to individual tribal members.
But the prolonged debate can obscure a base of widespread agreement over spending priorities. “Water, electricity and broadband — those are the main components,” Becenti said. “Those three are what the council wants, the president wants, and the protesters want.”
As political efforts to expand water access grind forward and as nonprofits work on interim solutions, a low-pressure public spigot in the Oljato Chapter near Monument Valley that Nez referred to in his congressional testimony is as crowded as ever with pickup trucks lined up every day, waiting to fill portable tanks and haul the water home.
Adakai said it’s important to keep those stakes in mind. “We’re in a water crisis,” he said. “We were before [the pandemic], but now it seems to be worse.”