How the pandemic exposed the water issues for southwestern tribes

Lack of potable water drove high Covid-19 rates in Native American communities, which helped get better representation in upcoming negotiations about Colorado River water.

Nancy Bitsue, an elderly member of the Navajo Nation, receives her monthly water delivery in the town of Thoreau on June 6, 2019 in Thoreau, New Mexico. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

While the world watched in horror as refrigerator trailers collected the bodies of Covid-19 victims in New York City, the suffering of Native American people was almost invisible.

The Navajo Nation was enduring an infection rate 21 percent higher than New York during the same time period. And the White Mountain Apache tribe on the New Mexico-Arizona border was grappling with infection rates almost twice as high as the national average.

A key factor driving these staggering infection numbers, according to a new report, was the limited access to water that as many as half of the Native Americans on reservations face. As hard as people across the country found it to practice rigorous hand-washing and social distancing, it was even tougher for many members of the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin. Many lacked the clean water essential for sanitizing their homes and bodies to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The new report, Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin, brings attention to the challenges many Indigenous people in the region face at a time when talks are set to begin on managing drought and water shortages throughout the river basin. Developed by the Water & Tribes Initiative, a consortium of tribes, nonprofits and academics, the report said the coronavirus exposed the human cost of water insecurity for Native American nations in the West. It also outlined strategies to finally tackle the longstanding crisis that helped make Covid-19 so lethal in Indigenous communities.

“It really is the time now to address this problem, to get water to all Americans,” said Heather Tanana, a research professor with the University of Utah law school’s Stegner Center and a member of the Navajo Nation Bar. “This has been ongoing for over 100 years since water systems became prevalent, and it’s just not acceptable.”

Tanana, a Navajo and the report’s lead author, said most of the 2 million Americans without running water and basic indoor plumbing are Native American, making race the most common factor in water insecurity. Only one of every three Navajo Nation homes has running water. And on the Hopi Reservation in eastern Arizona, 75 percent of people rely on water that is contaminated with excessive levels of arsenic.

Conditions like these made it difficult for Indigenous people in the region to take the precautions necessary to avoid contracting Covid-19. Navajo living in traditional, one-room hogans, for instance, could not isolate themselves from those infected with the virus. And contamination from past uranium mining forced many Navajo to travel to community taps for untainted water, where they risked picking up the virus from their neighbors waiting in line to fill their own tanks.

Getting water from the grocery store was also difficult, even at times when there was no shortage of supplies on the shelves, the report noted. The Navajo Reservation is the size of West Virginia. But while that state has 162 grocery stores, the reservation has just 13, many of them long drives from rural homes.

Tanana said the water situation reflects how Native Americans are often invisible to other Americans, and even to the federal government. “The average American doesn’t really know anything about Indigenous history, about the federal policies involved with native people in this country,” she said.

Pandemic Prompting Action on a Much Older Crisis

While the pandemic has proven to be one of those rare times when Indigenous people and the challenges they face have received national attention, the Water & Tribes Initiative is proposing solutions as the vaccination rate for the Navajo Nation exceeds the national rate. Conversations around racial and environmental justice over the past year have paved the way for acknowledging the right to clean water—especially among the Native Americans who’ve gone without it for so long.

The report discussed ways to better coordinate existing programs in an all-of-government approach that could help get clean water to tribal communities. The Biden administration has signaled an intention to take on these problems under the leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a 35th generation New Mexican and Laguna Pueblo, one of the 30 tribes in the Colorado River Basin.

In her first month on the job, Haaland announced the rekindling of the White House Council on Native American Affairs and the creation of a Drought Relief Working Group focused on the West’s water crisis. After 20 years of drought, capped by the second hottest and driest year in Arizona history and the spread of Covid-19, the urgency of such efforts is at historic levels. Federal pandemic response and recovery funding for Native American communities is on track to exceed $59 billion, according to Bidtah Becker, an attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and a Navajo member of the Water & Tribes Initiative.

“Covid-19 has pulled the curtain aside—none of the issues we’re talking about today are new, but we’re talking about them in a totally different way,” she said.

That’s created some hope, despite the grim headlines about the pandemic and the drought.

“I’ve never been as optimistic as I am now,” she said.

In a forward to the report, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) called the lack of access to clean water on reservations “a stain on our Republic.” Noting that nearly half of households on Native American reservations do not have potable water or adequate sanitation, he pointed to the Ute Mountain Utes, who have begun giving bottled water to one another as greeting gifts because the local supply is contaminated.

“When the federal government established reservations for Native American tribes, it promised a permanent and liveable homeland for those it had displaced from their ancestral homelands,” Bennet wrote. “The continued lack of access to clean and safe water for many Native American tribes betrays this fiduciary responsibility.”

The report and the new focus on Native American water security also comes at a time when crucial negotiations are about to get underway. In the past, the seven Colorado River Basin states and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation excluded Indigenous communities from talks about how to allocate the Colorado River, despite the fact that the tribes have priority rights to about 20 percent of the water. Now the tribes are determined to get a seat at the table for discussions about how to manage the river and to deal with shortages that are expected to increase, in part because of climate change.

Author John Fleck, director of water resources at the University of New Mexico’s Department of Economics, said the water insecurity faced by the basin tribes is a result of racist colonialism. Despite their large share of the water flowing in the Colorado River, the tribes have not received the billions of dollars of congressional appropriations that helped western states and localities build the reservoirs and pipes that deliver the water to farms, businesses and homes—about 40 million people.

But now, he said, the so-called “water buffaloes” who have dominated the western water discussion—state and county government leaders in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California—are acknowledging that the tribes should have a role in deciding the long-term operating guidelines for the Colorado, and planning how to respond to the current drought.

Allowing the tribes appropriate representation will make already difficult negotiations that much more challenging, Fleck said. But the alternative for tribes is increasingly unacceptable, even outside of Indian Country.

“Allocating the water is tough,” he concluded. “But there’s a wrong here that needs to be righted.”