The Navajo Nation has money from Biden’s infrastructure bill. So why don’t families have power?

Even as the nation makes progress in connecting houses to electricity, many households are lost in red tape.

(Alastair Lee Bitsóí | Salt Lake Tribune) Clark Village in Oljato, Navajo Nation, Utah includes a cluster of homes that need power and water. One of those homes is Harry Clark and Marilyn Haycock, who have been without electric power for decades. They hope to get connected to the grid under Navajo Tribal Utility Authority's Light Up Navajo III campaign.

San Juan County • Just north of the Monument Valley Tribal Park, in a cluster of homes known as Clark Village, Yeula Atene either walks or drives a half-mile to her in-laws, Harry Clark and Marilyn Haycock, to refrigerate the meat and vegetables she bought two hours away. Her in-laws have solar panels that power a fridge that her gas generator cannot.

The solar panels, however, are not reliable enough to meet the energy needs of both families. One of Clark and Haycock’s grandsons, who was born premature, requires oxygen and the family sometimes has to choose between powering his tanks and the fridge. Sometimes there’s not enough juice to charge the family’s cellphones.

Atene’s household is among an estimated 14,000 families that need basic electricity, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), which provides power to Navajo citizens across Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado. The Navajo Nation received approximately $1 billion from President Biden’s infrastructure bill, the American Rescue Plan Act. But local politics, tribal laws and federal red tape have kept getting utilities for the 250 homes in Oljato Chapter from being an easy fix.

A campaign by NTUA, Light Up Navajo III, will connect about 300 Diné (Navajo) families to the utility’s grid system over the next several weeks. The tribal utility launched a volunteer effort on April 3 with the American Public Power Association (APPA) and its sub-utilities across 10 states, including Utah, that started connecting families for the first time to power.

The cities of Bountiful and Santa Clara will send down crews to help NTUA with electric connections.

But Clark and Haycock’s solar panels may actually get in the way of their home being connected to the power grid. The panels arrived as part of an electrification push mid-pandemic when a group — the family isn’t sure which one — showed up and installed them.

Because the house has solar, the local government isn’t prioritizing a hookup. The mysterious group that installed it may not be around to service the panels either. If the family had to pick, they’d pick the grid for full power.

For Atene, there’s another barrier to getting power. Her home needs to be deemed an official homesite through the Navajo Land Department to get connected to the grid or get solar panels, she says. Getting a homesite designation can take years, with a lengthy process of approvals from families with grazing permits, signoffs from archaeologists, fish and wildlife services, environmental reviews, surveys and grazing officer clearances.

“We need full power,” Haycock said. “Living out here, you have to keep your food cool.”

The families have been told the Oljato Chapter, the local government that oversees the area that’s home to Clark Village, has prioritized homes for NTUA to connect. The chapter, one of 110 municipalities inside the Navajo Nation, doesn’t have a physical building and is hard to contact. The families in Clark Village aren’t sure if they’re in line for power.

“It seems like there are people just ignoring us,” Clark said.

“As far as connection to the electrical grid, that’s at the chapter level because, again, we have to follow Navajo Nation regulations and policies,” said Deenise Becenti, NTUA spokesperson. “The chapter would pass a resolution, and then they would determine how their funding will be allocated at the chapter level.”

Calvin Tsosie, the acting community services coordinator for Oljato Chapter, said most of the 250 homes in his chapter do not have official homesites. That makes it difficult to prioritize who gets electricity.

Tsosie said that the chapter government passed eight different resolutions for NTUA connections, including for Clark Village. Three projects are currently being funded by the chapter, he said, adding that it will likely be at least another year or two before families in Clark Village get their connections.

Council Delegate Herman Daniels, who represents the Diné chapters of Tsah Bii Kin, Navajo Mountain, Shonto, and Oljato on the Navajo Nation Council, said Oljato Chapter has unspent funds of about $2 million that could go toward connecting families in Clark Village.

“We really need to help Clark Village,” the lawmaker said. “They’ve been without electricity all their lives. They’ve been hauling water all their lives. I do not know how many generators they went through.”

The plight of some of his community members is difficult to communicate to his peers on the Navajo Nation Council, a 24-member body, Daniels says. The Council and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez have yet to spend the nation’s federal infrastructure bill funds.

A bill that Nez advocated for would have allocated about $38 million for Daniels’ district, but that bill was not seen as equitable to other districts, Daniels said, and the bill died. In the end, Daniels himself voted against it because amendments introduced by his colleagues reduced the amount his district would get.

Nez told The Salt Lake Tribune that the many levels of federal bureaucracy get in the way of connecting families to power. He is advocating for an executive order from Biden to connect rural families like those in Clark Village more quickly.

“A lot of the proposals that we receive here are given to us by the local chapters, and we don’t decide who gets power up at the Window Rock level,” Nez said, referring to the location of the Navajo Nation’s capital. “It’s pursuant to what the local community project proposals are.”

As they wait for their leaders to make their decisions, Atene will do what she can to provide for her family.

“We are on a waiting list,” Atene said. “We do have a homesite still in process. So we’re still having that going.”

At the end of this road in Clark Village, the iconic Bears Ears buttes on the horizon, a family of 18, who recently had their home burned down, lives in a single space — a hogan, a single-roomed building that’s the cultural home for the Diné people. It is overcrowded. They’re exhausted after trying to get every level of assistance and have given up hope for utilities.