Researchers work to quantify the Navajo Nation's water woes one household at a time
In Fort Defiance, one of five main communities situated on the Arizona-New Mexico border in the Navajo Nation, Taishiana Tsosie and Kimberly Belone are standing in a mobile office's cramped bathroom.
The two researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health turn off the lights and hold up plastic bags filled with water from the bathroom sink. Each bag has five small compartments, filled with the same sink water. Where they differ is in the chemicals added to each compartment.
“This is our compartment bag, and we use this and several other chemicals and tablets to test for E. coli in the water,” Tsosie said.
Today, the researchers are testing for harmful bacteria, but they also run separate tests for dangerous metals in drinking water.
Belone shines a black light on one of the bags from the mobile office sink. Some of the compartments on the bag glow slightly, signifying potential bacterial water contaminants.
“What we're looking for is…basically if it's glowing really, really bad,” Tsosie said. “(We’re) looking for very distinct fluorescent abnormalities in the water.”
Belone and Tsosie compare results against an E. coli-positive control bag from a stream down the road. They don’t think there’s any E. coli in the bags of water from the mobile office, but harmless bacteria are visible in some of the glowing compartments, according to Belone.
“I think (compartments) two and three on both of them are fluorescent,” Belone said.
This test is part of the Diné Household Water Survey, a first-of-its-kind two-year project led by Johns Hopkins University. Launched in late 2021, the project aims to accurately quantify the number of households without access to safe drinking water in Fort Defiance.
Across the entire Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the U.S., which stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah – roughly 30% of its residents lack access to clean, reliable drinking water, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.
“This is a really ambitious project for a pilot, but it is a really urgent need and it has to be done, like, yesterday,” said Reese Cuddy, a Santa Fe-based Johns Hopkins researcher who's directing the project. “You may not think (these challenges) are right here in the U.S. but they are and they (the residents) need help. And we need to be able to show what it is they're dealing with and then find solutions so they're no longer dealing with this on their own.”
Tsosie and Belone are both personally familiar with the Navajo Nation's water woes. They tell of their families growing up on the reservation without running water. Tsosie recollected that when her family finally got running water at home, it was yellow. Both their parents and grandparents were forced to haul water from wells and other public water holes.
"That’s the thing – it is a basic thing,” Belone said. “Everyone should be entitled to running water and all of that—but we’re not, here.”
The household water study is designed to illuminate the water issues that have been exacerbated by poverty, substandard housing, water scarcity and, ultimately, federal negligence.
“Centuries of oppression and broken promises have created an inexcusable situation,” Cuddy said. “I can say that about water, but I can say that about a lot of other things.”
The pandemic put a spotlight on the stark water inequities in the Navajo Nation. With so many people lacking the running water necessary to practice basic hygiene, COVID-19 quickly ravaged the Navajo Nation. Among the other compounding risk factors is that many Navajo homes are multigenerational, which meant additional pandemic risk factors.
“COVID numbers on Navajo really jumped up and a lot was pointing to—well, water access is a big contributor to this,” Cuddy said.
As case counts climbed in 2020, the Indian Health Service (IHS) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health, among other groups and agencies, partnered with the tribe and formed the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group to expand water access. That collaboration led to the creation of the Diné Household Water Survey in Fort Defiance. It's a pilot project now, but researchers plan to expand it to cover the rest of the Navajo Nation once the pilot finishes in November.
Unlike prior water surveys on the reservation, this one uses satellite imagery to map all homes in the Fort Defiance area, including some Navajo homes that are often not counted in other surveys.
“Some people live in a hogan, some people live in a trailer, some people live in a home, some people live in sheds that aren't insulated,” Cuddy said. “Some of those different housing units don't have a floor—they're dirt floors—and IHS doesn't actually count those homes as livable units so they're left out of the data set.”
In this survey, homes are randomly selected for a visit by researchers. Then, Tsosie, Belone and other researchers head out on winding dirt roads to find them – which can be difficult since there's little cell phone reception and homes here often lack addresses.
On an outing in early February, Tsosie and Belone are counting roads they pass as they look for a hogan, a traditional Navajo hut.
“So this would be seven, eight, right?” Tsosie asked.
“No, this isn't it…No, it is!” Belone replied.
At each home, they ask residents if they're willing to be interviewed anonymously about their water: where it comes from, its quality and their preferences for water solutions. In return, participants receive a gift card.
They'll survey more than 1,150 homes over the two years of the project and 100 of those homes will be selected for water testing like the black light test Tsosie and Belone conducted.
The interviews with residents can be “a rollercoaster of emotions,” according to Belone. She recalled a survey interview with an old man who was struggling to haul water.
“(He) had said something along the lines of, 'In a few years, I can't do this. I can't continue to do this. I'm not getting any younger,’” Belone said. “He was like, ‘I'm not going to have anybody to do this, so that might be the end of us if I can't haul water anymore.’”
There are no easy solutions. Heather Himmelberger, the director of the Southwest Environmental Finance Center at the University of New Mexico, said maintaining existing infrastructure is a huge challenge, much less upgrading and expanding it.
“We're not talking about large populations," Himmelberger said of the tribal communities she's worked with in New Mexico. “You have these very expensive infrastructure projects with very few people who can pay for them, so you can imagine that that becomes problematic over time.”
Cuddy said the same is true across the Navajo Nation.
“It takes, in some cases, millions of dollars to get a pipe out to a really remote home, and they're most likely always going to fall off the funding list due to that high expense and the geographic constraints,” she said. “In addition, they have really hard rock in a lot of these communities across Navajo and it's very difficult to make the infrastructure and get through that rock.”
Last year, the Southwest Environmental Finance Center published a study on tribal water systems and infrastructure funding in the Rio Grande pueblos. It found that many tribal communities are unaware of available funding and are also ill-equipped to apply for it. What's more, the funds that are awarded are often insufficient.
“Now how do you restructure the project if you don't get all the money?” Himmelberger said. “What are you going to do? What part gets done? What part doesn't get done? And then how does that affect that community for a longer time frame?”
Belone said these infrastructure challenges are familiar on the Navajo Nation and across Indian Country, but many people in the United States are oblivious to such issues and can’t relate.
“You have to see it firsthand,” she said. “You have to see how our homes and our neighborhoods look. You have to drive through our roads and hit all of the potholes and try to miss the dogs that are running across the road…You have to be hopeful that someone sees the benefit of (the project) without having to come out here.”
But Belone is buoyed by the people the survey is intended to help.
“Many of them are really, really grateful,” Belone said. “They're like, 'Thank you. Nobody has asked me these questions. Thank you for being the one to actually start something.'”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
This story was also supported by The Water Desk, an initiative from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
Correction: A recent version of this story mispronounced the last name of the researcher Taishiana Tsosie.
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