After decades without basic infrastructure, Navajo community asks for access to running water, electricity – again

Tribal elders say there have been “too many broken promises” after decades without basic infrastructure.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Danny Gonzalez, 6, plays outside of his home in Westwater on Thursday, August 19, 2010. The Navajo residents of Westwater live without running water, plumbing, sewage disposal or electricity.

Westwater • Renae Gene and her three children travel from Westwater to Blanding three times a week to fill a 300-gallon tank with water. They use the water, which costs them $30 a load, for everything from personal hygiene to washing dishes and drinking.

The drive to Blanding, where running water is not a luxury and green lawns abound, is less than a mile. But basic infrastructure like running water ends on the western edge of the rural community, where Westwater Creek separates the two towns culturally and economically.

Tribal and state leaders came to Westwater on Wednesday to see Gene’s story for themselves. The Westwater Diné Community lobbied the Legislature in winter 2020 for money to extend water and electricity to the town. The visit was organized by Lt. Gov. Diedre Henderson, who has been working on getting basic infrastructure to the community.

“The need here is water and electricity,” Gene, who is Navajo (Diné), told The Tribune. Her household is one of 29 families who call Westwater home.

Westwater residents met with Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, state lawmakers, leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, State Treasurer Marlo Oaks, Blanding Mayor Joe B. Lyman and other state and tribal leaders, who all agreed it was time to get the town services.

“We have been promised many things, but it has not come true,” Gene said, adding that basic services had been promised since the Navajo Nation purchased the 120 acres of land in 1986.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) The dog of Harrison Hutchins at the Westwater Navajo community, taekn on Wednesday, August 18, 2010. The two-dozen mostly elderly Navajo residents of Westwater live without running water, plumbing, sewage disposal or electricity.

While the families in Westwater continue to lack basic infrastructure, they contribute to the local economy and the sales tax revenues of the nearby communities of Blanding and Monticello.

Oaks estimates that the cost of getting the town services would be at least $10 million. He says the project will rely on money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) — the economic stimulus bill signed into law by President Joe Biden during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of Utah is expected to receive at least $1 billion and the Navajo Nation will get $2.1 billion from the stimulus package.

As the administrator for the Utah Navajo Trust Fund, Oaks said that $500,000 had already been approved from the trust for getting power to Westwater.

Last week, Blanding changed its ordinances to allow the town to sell water to an outside utility — a possible solution to getting residents running water.

Lyman said it is easy to blame the city of Blanding for Westwater’s issues.

“It is on private land owned by the tribe. It is outside of our jurisdiction,” Lyman said. “We have no control over what happens out there. The state of Utah and county do. We have none, and the tribe has not had sufficient resources to pay for development to make it happen in the past, and now they have found that resource.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) As the wind starts to blow, Albert Cly, 71, walks with Jesse Herderboy, who is in her 90's, outside of her home in Westwater Thursday August 19, 2010. The two-dozen mostly elderly Navajo residents of Westwater live without running water, plumbing, sewage disposal or electricity.

The trip south from the capital was Henderson’s third visit to Westwater. “I brought some legislators down so that they can see first hand the need in this Navajo community — the proximity [of] it to the city of Blanding,” Henderson said. “The state legislature has a role here. The state needs to help solve this problem, and we have opportunities with ARPA funds to provide infrastructure for rural communities.”

Lizer said that when the tribe decided to buy the 120-acres in 1986, it was to benefit the entire Navajo Nation. “It’s a good thing when you can add land back to the Navajo Nation,” Lizer said. “I am sure the goal in ‘86 was to bring water and power soon, but the politics of it all” has hindered any development.

“We are talking about what we can do, not looking backward,” Lizer said.

Elder Todd Larkin, who sits on the Native American Committee for the LDS Church, said the church had pledged a donation of $500,000 for the project.

State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, said the Legislature made a budget allocation of $500,000 for Westwater, but state priorities changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With the ARPA funds that have been allocated, it brings a huge opportunity,” Lyman said. “If we can’t get it done now then we are really missing an opportunity to step in and take care of the needs of this community.”

At the end of their visit with Gene, Diné elders Albert Cly Jr. and Gladys Cly pleaded with state leaders to get the job done.

“How long is it going to take?” asked the 82-year-old Albert, who lobbied the Legislature with his wife in 2020.

“Too many broken promises,” added Gladys, who was visibly frustrated.

“Any promises that were made by the city of Blanding to get water here, that’s too big for Blanding,” state Sen. Derrin Owens said.

“If you’re going to do something, just tell the person it might happen or it won’t,” Cly told Owens.

“There’s no promise; there’s hope,” Owens replied.

Correction • Sept. 24, 8:45 a.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that there are 29 families in Westwater.