Tiny Navajo community in Utah moves closer than ever to getting water and power

Utah Legislature appropriates $500,000, with $200,000 coming from Utah Navajo Trust Fund and up to $1M from the LDS Church.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) In this 2010 file photo, Albert Cly, 71, shows off the solar electricity panels he installed in his home in the Westwater Navajo community. The 16 residents of Westwater live without running water or electricity, despite the community's proximity to Blanding.

Westwater, a small Navajo Nation-owned community in San Juan County, may finally be on track to getting running water and power after decades of false starts and disappointments.

The southeastern Utah community is located a quarter mile from Blanding’s city limits, the county’s most populous town, where residents have enjoyed modern amenities for more than a century. But water and electric lines have never been extended to the 29 lots on 120 acres in Westwater, where 16 families live.

A breakthrough seemed imminent last year, when the Legislature approved $500,000 to address the issue, and a number of nonprofits and religious organizations pledged to help raise the remainder of the project cost, which is pegged at $2.7 million.

But the funding appropriation was approved just weeks before the coronavirus pandemic struck Utah, hitting San Juan County harder than any other part of the state and causing yet another delay for Westwater residents.

Though frustrating, the delay was not surprising for Evangeline Gray, a co-founder of the Westwater Diné Community group and a board member of the Indigenous-led nonprofit Utah Diné Bikéyah. Both groups have been advocating for the water and power project.

“We’re so used to not being taken as a priority as First Nation people,” she said, noting past efforts to address the problem through Indian Health Service funding fizzled in the early 2000s. There was a sense, she added, that it was “going to be the same old footpath that we’ve been following: no electricity, no running water.”

Residents of the community currently haul water from central sources and rely on small solar systems. Gray said inconsistent power and internet have made it particularly difficult for students to complete schoolwork during the pandemic.

But Gray has been feeling more optimistic in recent weeks after the Legislature again appropriated $500,000 for the project, in the wake of approval of $200,000 from the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, a state-run entity in charge of distributing oil and gas royalties collected from the Utah portion of Navajo Nation to Diné residents.

“This adds a little bit of hope that this will become reality,” she said.

Tony Dayish, executive director of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, said there have been efforts to bring water and power to the homes since the Navajo Nation bought the land from the Bureau of Land Management in 1986 to help the families who were living there since the early 1900s, but the most recent push began in 2018.

The $200,000 approved by the trust fund was identified as a priority for the Blue Mountain Diné, the group representing members of the Navajo Nation living in and near Blanding, and the funds were approved last month by the trust fund’s Diné Advisory Committee and its board.

“It’s a priority for the Westwater folks,” Dayish said, “and it’s a priority for the Blue Mountain Diné community.”

Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, pressed for state funding at an appropriations committee hearing last month, calling Westwater “dramatically underserved and in need.” Lyman noted that Westwater fell into a jurisdictional gray area as private “fee land” owned by the Navajo Nation, but not part of the federal reservation, and just outside of Blanding.

Lyman added The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has committed $1 million toward the Westwater project. Other partners listed on trust fund documents include the Navajo Revitalization Fund, the nonprofit DigDeep, the Department of Agriculture, and the Indian Health Service.

Hurdles remain. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which provides water and power to much of the Navajo Nation, is considering two proposals to hook up the electric lines: a connection in nearby Blanding or a four-mile line from outside city limits to the south, the latter of which would add considerable costs to the effort.

The project will proceed in phases, with the electric hookups likely occurring first. Gray is also calling on the county, which receives property taxes from the Navajo Nation, to improve roads in the community that get muddy after rains.

“Our young people need internet and electrical lights to study,” Gray said. “Maybe within 10 years, I’m hoping that we will finish homes for our people ... the roads will be paved, and we’ll have electricity and water.”

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.