This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
[Subscribe to our newsletter here]
If the weather is nice and sunny, the energy from Renea Hutchins Gene’s solar panel is enough to keep the lights on for about three days. It’s the moonlight in the southeast Utah town of Westwater that paints a different scenario.
“When the sun goes down, that’s when we have to be very, very conservative,” Gene said, “because at night some of us have kids, so we have to use the light for them to, you know, use the restroom and everything.”
Gene, who is part Navajo (Diné) and Ute, isn’t using her solar panel to replace traditional power. Born and raised in Westwater, it’s a lifestyle she’s accustomed to.
“We’ve never had any water or electricity,” Gene said, comparing her childhood to the present day.
For the last 40 years, Westwater hasn’t had adequate access to critical infrastructures like electricity and running water. Since the Navajo Nation bought the land from the state of Utah in the 1980s, there has been an ongoing debate over whose responsibility it is to provide Westwater’s 29 households with the same resources expected throughout Utah.
Now, decades later, the Cox administration says that it is committed to installing basic infrastructure like broadband internet, stable electricity and hot running water in Westwater.
“These are citizens of the state of Utah, and they deserve to be treated like that,” Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said. “Ultimately, the state is responsible. This is not reservation land.”
For Henderson, the pandemic put a spotlight on Westwater. When schools in San Juan County shut down in response to COVID-19, many students went home to no internet connection. Gene’s home is one of the few with internet access in Westwater, but the solar panel couldn’t meet the demand.
“We had to be extra careful about our [energy] use,” Gene said about conserving the power it took for her three kids to attend school virtually. “And a lot of money going to gas for the generator, too.”
Like Utah, the Navajo Nation received billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help with the pandemic’s economic impact. In fact, the Navajo Nation received more than Utah, getting about $2.1 billion compared to Utah’s almost $1.4 billion.
The Navajo Nation allocated some of its ARPA funds to approximately 325,000 Diné citizens to help offset pandemic challenges with hardship assistance checks worth $2,000 for every adult member of the tribe and $600 for those 18-and-under.
With the $1.1 billion leftover, Navajo Nation Council lawmakers, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer are deciding how to best invest in infrastructure.
But full funds for basic infrastructure in Westwater lie in the hands of Utah legislators, says Henderson, which leaves the administration’s promise on rocky grounds.
“The Legislature holds the purse strings,” Henderson said.
‘It’s just not right’
State Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, grew up with kids from Westwater and recognizes the inequities.
“It’s just not right in this day and age that people don’t have running water,” Lyman said. “It’s going to take some money to fix that.”
Henderson has traveled to Westwater four times since becoming lieutenant governor and she acknowledges Westwater’s frustration with empty promises.
“The Legislature sees the need for this [infrastructure]. They understand the fundamental importance of access to opportunity,” Henderson emphasized. “And people don’t have access to opportunity if they don’t have roads to their communities, if they don’t have internet connection, if they don’t have water or electricity in their homes.”
However, Lyman says the Legislature is in a tough spot. The estimated cost to implement the vital services to Westwater is around $10 million, which Lyman thinks is an inflated figure, but he says the price tag is a turnoff to lawmakers.
“It’s difficult legislatively because you’re saying, ‘Well, we want to spend our money in a way that brings the greatest benefit to the most number of people,’ “ Lyman explained, pointing to Westwater’s small population size.
Last year, the Legislature allocated $500,00 to the Westwater project—roughly 5% of the projected costs. Lawmakers also allocated one-time ARPA money for rural water infrastructure, without specifying which projects would receive the support. Westwater is the top priority for these funds in the governor’s 2023 budget recommendations.
“They [legislators] pay for things and we can help them understand the priorities that our executive branch has,” Henderson said. “But ultimately, they make the decisions as to what types of things are going to be funded when it comes to this federal funding.”
The Legislature hasn’t confirmed if any ARPA funding will be set aside for Westwater. Lyman believes it will be a topic of discussion at some point during the legislative session, but he hasn’t “seen anything come through the Legislature” regarding aid for the Westwater project.
But there’s still time to ensure Gene doesn’t have to wait another 20 years before she can comfortably flick on a light switch.
“The Westwater community is one of those situations that you say, we have the resources right now to potentially do it,” Lyman said, “even though it doesn’t pencil out.”
Because of ARPA, Lyman acknowledged that acting this legislative session to connect Westwater to water and power makes sense. “Maybe the time is now versus waiting longer.”
What is the Navajo Nation doing?
Last month, the Navajo Nation Council’s Naa’bik’iyati Committee tabled legislation to hold discussions on which projects get funded. Whether Westwater is part of this infrastructure bill is still being decided, says Jared Touchin, spokesman for Nez-Lizer.
Approximately 10,000 projects focused on infrastructures like water, broadband, electricity and home improvements are being considered for funds under the proposed bill, says Alray Nelson, spokesman for the Navajo Nation Council.
“They’re trying to figure out exactly what proposals are going to be accepted that can be used toward the funding,” Nelson said. “So that listing is not finalized yet.”
In his state of the Navajo Nation address to the council last week, Nez asked members of the council to pass the infrastructure bill to “improve the quality of life for many of our people and for future generations.”
Lizer, who was in Westwater two weeks ago with Henderson delivering firewood to residents in collaboration with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, confirmed these conversations are still happening among leaders.
“The sources are in place. The commitments are in place,” Lizer said.
Rex P. Kontz, deputy general manager for Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), said the tribal utility has been working on water extensions for Westwater with various other partners. Kontz added Westwater water lines would connect to the city of Blanding, which has agreed to supply the water.
“The first stage is getting funds to design a system both on the future NTUA system side and on the city of Blanding side,” Kontz said, noting that initial feasibility costs have been around $40,000. “NTUA is also in the process of designing an electric power supply distribution connection and onsite delivery network.”
As conversations among stakeholders continue, Renea Hutchins Gene is crossing her fingers that one day she won’t have to wake up in the morning and immediately check her water tank levels. At the very least, she hopes her kids won’t have to worry about it once they become adults.
“I want my kids to have a good life, just like everyone else does for their kids,” Gene said. “That they can just walk into their home, turn on running water, turn on a light, and they can just watch TV— just like everyone else does that has electricity.”