Universities to treat water in Navajo Nation communities

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A man who lives in Aneth fills up his water jugs at the St. Christopher's Episcopal Mission well in Bluff. More than one-third of Navajo Nation households lack running water, and the problem is even worse in San Juan County where nearly half of Navajo Nation residents have to haul water. Families fill jugs at communal wells or buy bottled water from stores — both costly and time-consuming burdens that have become only more difficult during the pandemic and the tribe's daily and weekend curfews.

Albuquerque, N.M. • Environmental science students at Navajo Technical University are often asked by their professors about how they want to give back to their Navajo Nation communities.

The top answer: by improving access to clean water.

Navajo Technical University and New Mexico Tech have teamed up to address such water issues in rural Navajo areas, starting a pilot project to build and operate filtration units for well sites across the vast reservation.

The units can treat even the dirtiest water, said Robert Balch, director of the Petroleum Recovery Research Center at New Mexico Tech and a project lead.

“So many residents on reservations have to drive sometimes 100 miles to get water, and bring it back to the house in bottles,” Balch said. “Well water is available to lot of tribes, but is not always in great shape.”

The U.S. Water Alliance estimates that 30% of Navajo residents don’t have running water, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The universities signed a memorandum of understanding on Tuesday in Crownpoint to launch the project. The technology was invented by New Mexico Tech researcher Jianjia Yu.

Dirty water will be treated with bundles of hollow fiber membrane — thin polymer “straws” with a coating to help filter contaminants. Each straw opening is about the width of a human hair. The units can filter out salt, phosphates, nitrates and heavy metals.

Water at windmills, tanks and wells will be treated for agricultural use. But with state approval, the technology could treat drinking water supplies.

Abhishek RoyChowdhury, assistant professor of environmental science and natural resources at Navajo Technical University, said the team will work with Navajo agencies to identify areas that have the worst water quality or the most severe water accessibility issues.

“Our students will learn the science and be trained in the technology, but will also learn practical ways to get involved with the community to solve environmental science problems,” he said.

Navajo communities will learn basic upkeep for the systems. The NTU team will translate scientific terms and water data into the Diné language.

“These students know the value of water,” RoyChowdhury said. “If we can get a water filtration system to the most remote part of the reservation so people just have to drive a mile instead of 100 miles, that’s a huge benefit.”

The team will work with Pesco, a manufacturing company in Farmington. Students will begin sampling sites later this year.