By Michael Sainato
The Navajo Nation encompasses over 27,000 square miles, in areas throughout Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Its size would make it the 10th largest state in the country, yet residents on the reservation are still treated like second class citizens. Nearly 40 percent of Navajo Nation members have no access to running water in their homes.
Many Navajo members are forced to travel long distances on rough roads to stock up on water at stores or spend up to several hours waiting in lines at watering holes, especially during the summer months. Several families still depend on melted snow in some areas for water to complete basic home tasks.
“Everybody thinks that every Native American tribe in the US receives a Pell Grant or something from the casino,” said Annie Begay, Field Coordinator for DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project said in an interview with the Real News Network. She grew up on the Navajo Nation without access to clean running water. “People don’t know about the lack of the water here, because everybody just assumes that we have every utility that we need to live comfortably, while in reality, we really don’t.”
The Navajo Nation is a predominantly rural area where water infrastructure is estimated to cost $70,000 per resident. These costs are due to the remote areas many people live in, the rocky terrain that makes excavation costly, and that fact that many local water resources have either been polluted by practices such as uranium mining or are exploited to provide water to other communities outside the reservation.
Between 1944 to 1986, roughly 4 million tons of uranium were extracted from the Navajo Nation by mining companies. The impacts of the pollution still linger, as many Navajo Nation residents have died of kidney failure, cancer, and uranium has been recorded in newborn babies. Over the past decade, the EPA has forced mining companies to haul away large amounts of mine waste, but the contaminants still remain the region, especially in the water supply. Several of the abandoned mines continue to seep pollution into the area, including in water sources unregulated in accordance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The number of unregulated water sources are estimated by the EPA to be in the low thousands on the Navajo Nation, yet despite often containing uranium and other pollutants, they are still used due to the lack of access to clean running water sources on the reservation.
“There was no information or education to the families that live within the area. The mining companies just came in. They got the uranium, and nobody really knew the effects of it or how it would contaminate our water sources,” Begay said. The United States Government, Anadarko Petroleum and other mining companies have paid over $1 billion dollars in settlements to the Navajo Nation since 2014 to cleanup abandoned mines and uranium pollution. The Navajo Nation is still in litigation with the EPA for compensation from damages caused the the EPA’s Gold King Mine spill in 2015 that polluted rivers flowing into the Navajo Nation.
As the Navajo Nation pushes for mining companies and the federal government to conduct cleanups and provide compensation for damages from decades of pollution from mining, the non profit Navajo Water Project, founded in 2013, has focused on developing water infrastructure for residents on the Navajo Nation, and facilitating clean water access while that infrastructure is developed.
“The strategy right now is getting home water systems installed into these homes that don’t have access to clean running water or don’t have access to have a water pipe coming off of the main utility line into their home,” Begay added. “It’s always in the back of their mind to conserve water that they need for those who don’t have access to clean running water. In the winter, some water sources freeze, so many people have to resort to a round trip of 60 miles to go into town to get gallons of water from the store, or if possible, another filling station. It creates a lot of problems”
Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images