Parts of Navajo water pipeline near completion amid coronavirus

(Carolyn Kaste | AP file photo) Chris Topher Chee waits for water to fill a tank in the back of his truck to haul home in Oljato-Monument Valley, Utah, on the Navajo Nation on April 27, 2020.

Crownpoint, N.M. • Growing up without running water or electricity in rural New Mexico on the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation in the 1950s, Daniel Tso contracted tuberculosis at the age of 5 and had to spend the next five years of his childhood in a TB sanatorium in Albuquerque.

Tso, who is serving a third term as Navajo Nation Council delegate and is the chairman of the Council's Health, Education and Human Services Committee, remembered that on the first day at the Torreon Day School, the students lined up for the tuberculosis vaccination.

At the time, officials would conduct a TB skin test.

"The next day, when I went to school, my right arm, where the skin test was made, was red and swollen, which meant I had TB," he said. "I remember that I had to go home and put some clothes in a little suitcase, and I remember being in a government vehicle from Torreon to Crownpoint where I spent one night at the hospital. I remember being out in a plane. I remember sitting by the pilot and looking down at some of the hogans along the way that turned into little dots. But I don't remember landing in Albuquerque probably because I had fallen asleep. And then, in a vehicle to Albuquerque Indian Health Hospital, and remember being taken to a room on the fourth floor. Within a certain time, then, I was taken to a regular tuberculosis sanatorium where there were more Navajo children."

Tso spent five years at that sanatorium.

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A U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs report of the late 1940s concludes that housing conditions of the Navajo were "incredible to most Americans who have not seen them. The Navajo family lives in a hogan which is one room built of logs and mud without a floor or window. There are no sanitary facilities or modern conveniences." The report includes that "most of the Navajo children are being housed in shacks, often two in a cast-off bed, or sleeping on dirt floors. With no toilets, conditions are shockingly unsanitary, and epidemics are frequent." The same report concludes that tuberculosis and pneumonia were the main causes of death among Navajos in the largest Navajo hospitals. Two main tuberculosis sanatoriums serving Navajo, one in Phoenix and the other in Albuquerque, provided six beds per 1,000 population in 1948, and they were considered inadequate.

While there has been improvement on the Navajo Nation, a high percentage of the population still lives in similar conditions – without running water, adequate housing or access to sanitation.

Navajo authorities estimate 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation lack running water and/or electricity.

These inadequacies have been recently linked to the current crisis on the Navajo Nation, where Navajos are facing a devastat ing coronavirus outbreak. The Nation currently has the highest per-capita infection rate after New York and New Jersey.

Tso, who earlier this year requested the governor of New Mexico to activate the Naat'áanii Development Corporation to gain access to Medicaid dollars to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 on the Navajo Nation, said the Nation has been making slow progress in developing a reliable water system to supply its communities, and efforts are finally paying off.

Construction of a major water pipeline to move water from the San Juan River to various communities of the Navajo Nation continues, and part of the project on the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation is near completion.

Patrick Page, deputy construction engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation said Tuesday that construction of the pipeline system on the Eastern Agency will be completed this summer and engineers expect to begin introducing this new water source into the existing distribution system by fall.

"We'll be providing communities in that area with a more firm reliable source of drinking water," Page said. "Our plan, Reclamation intent, is to transfer operation maintenance to Navajo Tribal Utility Authority." The eastern pipeline system is known as Cutter Lateral.

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Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Deputy Manager Rex Kontz said Tuesday that Cutter Lateral will serve about 1,579 homes.

"This project brings bulk water through the treatment plant out of cutter dam," he said. "This replaces and increases water over the existing ground water supply. The project connects up all the smaller individual systems between Cutter Dam and all the way to Jicarilla." While Cutter Lateral will not immediately serve new homes, the project has potential for community growth and economic development across the chapters of the Eastern Agency along the path of the pipe, including Tso's hometown, Torreon.

The western pipeline, which runs parallel to New Mexico Highway 491, is still under construction with a completion date planned for no later than Dec. 31, 2024.

While these systems might not be ready in time to help Navajo during the ongoing crisis, the Nation is moving in the right direction, Page said.

"It may not help to get us through this particular crisis, but will be there for future needs," he said.

The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is a major infrastructure project that once constructed, will convey a reliable municipal and industrial water supply from the San Juan River to the eastern section of the Navajo Nation, southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation, and the city of Gallup, New Mexico via about 280 miles of pipeline, several pumping plants, and two water treatment plants, according to the project website.

The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is designed to provide a long-term sustainable water supply to meet the future population needs of approximately 250,000 people in these communities by the year 2040 through the annual delivery of 37,764 acre-feet of water from the San Juan Basin.

The project’s eastern branch will divert approximately 4,645 acre-feet of water annually with no return flow to the San Juan River. The project’s western branch will divert 33,119 acrefeet of water with an anticipated average annual return flow of 1,871 acre-feet.