Decades of effort have a Navajo community on the verge of clean water access
About 45 minutes west of Albuquerque, N.M., past miles of desert and a remote casino, is the turn off for To’Hajiilee, a non-contiguous part of the Navajo Nation.
About 2,000 people live here and none of them have indoor access to good drinking water. So for the last couple of years the Navajo government has delivered bottled water to the community.
On a recent cool morning, five people unloaded about 1,200 gallons of bottled water from a semi-truck into a metal barn. Without these deliveries, more people would have to drive into Albuquerque to buy drinking water and bring it back.
The natural water here is from the Rio Puerco and it’s not very good. Former officials say it’s corrosive and contains rust and hydrogen sulfide – the gas that causes that rotten egg smell.
"There’s just always a smell to it," said Yvonne Apachito, who helps run the front desk at the To’Hajiilee Chapter House, the local seat of government. "Almost like a sewer smell."
As Apachito moved pallets of bottled water into the barn, she explained that residents shower in the Rio Puerco water and sometimes wash their clothes with it, but no one drinks it.
"We always have to get bottled water, even to boil water,” she said.
The chapter house tries to distribute water once a month, with each family receiving five cases of bottled water and several gallon jugs. Usually about 300 families show up.
While To’Hajiilee's isolation from the rest of the Navajo Nation makes it somewhat unique, its lack of access to clean drinking water is common across the sprawling reservation, which stretches across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.
Those living on the Navajo Nation are 67 times more likely to not have running water or a toilet than other Americans, according to the U.S. Water Alliance. It's evident here that, as a 2021 national report by the alliance and DigDeep found, "race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access."
Yvonne’s daughter Rheana Apachito works at the chapter house, too, and she describes what it was like growing up in To’Hajiilee.
“It was hard," she said. "We had to go into Albuquerque, like all the time, to get water.”
They’d usually make the drive to Costco or Walmart once a week and sometimes they’d go to the laundromat, too. That remains the family's routine when the delivered water doesn't get them through a month.
But a gamechanger is coming to To’Hajiilee – a 7-mile pipeline that will bring in water from the Rio Grande.
Mark Begay is a former To’Hajiilee chapter president and has run its water system for decades. That’s meant taking care of the community’s wells. All but one, he says, has collapsed because of the corrosive water, and he suspects it’s near the end of its life.
“It could go out any day now," Begay said. "And that’s not the solution, keep drilling wells. Every time that well goes out we put in about $50,000.”
About 20 years ago, he said, the chapter started looking into more efficient ways to get clean, reliable drinking water to the community.
They caught a break in 2019.
The Navajo Nation bought some water rights from another tribe. But how would they get it to To’Hajiilee? They didn’t own the land for the proposed pipeline’s route. Negotiations involved numerous landowners, engineers, and state, federal and tribal officials and dragged on for years. It was hard on Begay.
“I was depressed, I was upset, I lost sleep,” he said, pausing to control his emotions as he teared up.
Then, on Veteran’s Day 2020, he got a call from a state lawmaker.
"He said, 'Mr. Begay, I have some good news for you. It’s done. We’ve come to an agreement. Water’s going to be coming through.'"
"I just went to my knees," he said. "There was a great feeling that day. It was worth it.”
Money for the project has come from the Navajo Nation, different state and county funds, and federal COVID aid.
Project engineers expect pipeline construction to start this summer.
This story was supported by The Water Desk, an initiative from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
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.