How state and tribal leaders hope to bring water to Westwater

State, tribal and community leaders have worked together to ensure Westwater will be connected to an electrical grid next month.

(Alastair Lee Bitsóí | Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson meets with Navajo Nation Council Speaker Seth Damon and others lawmakers on Wednesday in Window Rock, Ariz., to talk about Westwater.

Window Rock, Ariz.• Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson flew to the Navajo Nation Wednesday to ask the nation for its commitment and financial support to help bring running water to 29 homes in Westwater, a Diné community outside of Blanding.

Westwater residents have spent decades in the dark and hauling water from local wells to bathe, wash clothes and drink. Just over Westwater Creek, the neighboring town of Blanding has lit up streets and homes with manicured front yards.

It took the organizing of community members from Westwater, who are both citizens of the Navajo Nation and Utahns themselves, to get help. Prior to the pandemic and during the 2020 legislative session, Diné elders successfully lobbied legislators to focus on the small community.

Along with Utah and the Navajo Nation, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the city of Blanding, Dig Deep, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the Navajo Utah Commission, made of local communities to push legislative priorities for Diné in Utah, are working to get infrastructure to this small community.

So far, their efforts are have been successful, as Westwater is scheduled to be connected to the electric grid next month.

Next, those groups are focused on bringing water to the community.

Henderson met separately with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and members of the Navajo Nation Council, including Speaker Seth Damon, in the tribal capital of Window Rock to discuss how to get basic services to the Navajo community, whose gone without since the land was purchased in the 1980s.

Henderson asked for the Navajo Nation to allocate $3.2 million toward water supply access to Westwater from Blanding.

“We are committed to making sure that this project gets done,” Henderson said. “What we need is a commitment from the Navajo Nation.”

Engineering studies from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority last year initially reported that connecting Westwater to Blanding’s water supply costs about $1.85 million. Since, the projected costs have increased to about $5 million and part of the price increase is inflation, the lieutenant governor said.

Both the state and the Navajo Nation received billions of dollars in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help with economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Navajo Nation is currently considering a bill in its legislature that would allocate $1 billion toward infrastructure across the vast landscape that extends into portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“The water portion has been a lot trickier and more expensive [than electricity],” Henderson said, adding that the Utah Legislature had capped water projects from the state’s ARPA at $3.5 million per project.

That cap on water projects is why the Navajo Nation and the city of Blanding would also have to chip in for the infrastructure.

Henderson told Diné lawmakers that Blanding would likely need to get a loan through the state’s Drinking Water Board to hold up its end of the project. The same day she was in the Navajo Nation, she also visited Blanding to tell city officials there of their commitment to address Westwater, she said.

“We can work on our end to work to close that gap to help the people and residents of Westwater,” said Damon, Navajo Nation council speaker. “You got that commitment from us today. I can guarantee you that.”

Council delegate Charlaine Tso — who represents the Navajo communities of Mexican Water, Tółikan, Teec Nos Pos, Aneth, and Red Mesa — said there are many avenues from the tribal treasury to help get Westwater water, like packaging the requests through proposed infrastructure bill or from different pieces of legislation.

Kim Shelley, executive director for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said the state has already contributed $1.4 million to the planning process for water and electric connections for both Westwater and Blanding. The community is able to apply for up to $3.5 million in state APRA funds for the water project, Shelley added.

Last month, Henderson visited residents in Westwater and delivered firewood with Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer and leaders of the LDS Church. Henderson learned about how a household had recently recovered from COVID-19 and how the family had to find a hotel to stay in until fully recovered and off oxygen. The oxygen tanks took the energy from the generators the family used for its daily use.

The Navajo Nation president told The Salt Lake Tribune that he’d submitted a memo to Damon on Wednesday about the need to meet to discuss the infrastructure bill for the entire Navajo Nation.

“We are closer than before in getting infrastructure to Westwater,” Nez said. “Right now, we need to know the price tag. It comes at a good time because we are dealing with the ARPA infrastructure legislation and our recommendation to the Council is to provide funding for Westwater in the package.”

Damon said that the Navajo Nation Council, considered the governing body of the Navajo Nation, is scheduled to meet at Twin Arrows Resort near Flagstaff later in the month to begin conversations about Westwater.

Other topics of discussion included the tribe’s ask for the state to continue its support of the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement, road goals for San Juan County and recovery of Diné communities from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Correction: March 11, 12:40 p.m. • This story has been updated to reflect the state’s planning costs and the amount Westwater can apply for in assistance from the state for the water connection project.

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.