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What a water pipeline will mean to the residents of To’Hajiilee

Bottled water distribution in To’Hajiilee - line1, March 2023.
Emma Gibson / Mountain West News Bureau
The line in To’Hajiilee to receive bottled water, March 2023.

It’s a windy morning and dozens of residents are lined up in cars and trucks on the main road through To’Hajiilee, a Navajo community west of Albuquerque, N.M.

They’re eagerly waiting for the clock to strike 10 a.m., when local government staff will begin loading up their trunks and pickup beds with cases of bottled water.

To’Hajiilee roughly means “dripping water” in Diné and yet water is their biggest worry.

Shirley King is part of one of about 300 families picking up water today.

“We are in dire need of water – better water that we could drink from the sink," she says. "In Albuquerque they do, you know. They boil water. They make coffee and cook with it. We don’t.”

A resident of To’Hajiilee receiving her households cases of bottled water, March 2023.
Emma Gibson
Mountain West News Bureau
A resident of To’Hajiilee receiving her households cases of bottled water, March 2023.

A 7-mile pipeline promises to bring clean water to the community, with construction scheduled to start soon. But for now, people have to drive 45 minutes to Albuquerque to buy water or wait in lines like this every month.

Still, a lot of people in line don’t know what’s happening with the pipeline. What’s the timeline? Has work already begun on the reservation? How will their water bills change?

“I’m sure it’s not going to be free,” King says. “So when it comes here, I don’t know if they’re gonna put a meter on or what."

Right now, it’s a flat $25 per month for households to use the natural water, which comes from the Rio Puerco. It's corrosive and smells like rotten eggs. A lot of families don’t pay that fee and one reason is because they aren’t being billed.

Folks like Cecil Atencio, who is also in the line to get bottled water.

“I haven’t paid for the water yet out here,” says Atencio. “When the new pipeline, when the water comes, it might change. The way I think about it, I think it’s OK.”

Nora Morris is the To’Hajiilee chapter vice president. She says the water department isn’t currently staffed. That's why bills aren’t going out and also partly why she can’t say how billing may change when the pipeline is built.

But she thinks residents would like it if their bills stayed a fixed amount.

And though things will change, Morris knows people are excited for this new chapter.

“Some of them are already talking about [wanting] to have their own swimming pool,” she says. “Those are just dreams that they thought of years ago and it’s finally going to become a reality.”

Cases of water being loaded into a resident's truck during a water distribution event in To’Hajiilee, N.M., March 2023.
Emma Gibson
Mountain West News Bureau
Cases of water being loaded into a resident's truck during a water distribution event in To’Hajiilee, N.M., March 2023.

Also picking up water today is Rose Chicharello. She has dreamed about clean water coming to To’Hajiilee for years.

“I told my husband when the new line – when the new waterline comes in – I said, 'I want you to build me a small storage, and I want a new washing machine, I want a dryer, and I want a shower in there with clean water,' I told him.”

Her husband has since passed away, but she says her sons are committed to building her storage room.

Chicharello, who is 75, has lived in To’Hajiilee her whole life. When she was little, she remembers, her grandma used to go to a nearby canyon to collect rainwater from depressions in the sandstone.

“And she used to save these cans – coffee cans – there would be like a puddle of water on the rocks,” she said.

The kids would scoop the water out and pass the cans onto their grandpa, who would pour it in a barrel.

“And that was our drinking water – rain water,” she said.

To’Hajiilee’s next phase may include a laundromat or a gas station – businesses that have failed in the community due to its lack of suitable water.

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.

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