It’s been two weeks since the Gold King Mine spill closed irrigation on the Navajo Nation and officials say fields around Shiprock are beginning to die off. Farmers there want to know when they’ll be able to water their crops again.
The big white Shiprock Chapter House has been busy ever since the spill. Farmers drive in from all around, and emergency meetings sometimes have a couple hundred people in attendance. For many here, the wilting crops represent damage to food security, culture and a way of life.
Farming goes back in Gilbert Yazzie's family many generations. "It’s part of our lifestyle," he said. "It’s part of our culture, our families. What I know about what we’re doing came from my grandfather and other elders in the family."
The Navajo Nation shut off irrigation from the San Juan River and waited on testing results from its own Environmental Protection Agency. "I will say this: I thank our creator for the rain we had the other evening," Yazzie said.
The U.S. EPA told farmers in nearby San Juan County to start using the water again, but it was the EPA who triggered the spill, and Navajo Council delegates questioned whether data from the agency can be trusted.
And Yazzie? He was thinking about food and hunger. "We usually have our first corn by now, and we were taking loads of steam corn out to people on the reservation, because I feel for them."
Yazzie and other farmers in Shiprock bring produce to regions of the Navajo Nation like Kayenta, Chinle and Gallup. "They’re probably looking for us, waiting for us. 'Where is the ones who bring us the steamed corn?' " he said. "It’s affected our lives. We say corn is life, also."
Farming means food security—and food sovereignty, Yazzie said. People out here rely on crops not just as a source of income but as nourishment year-round.
Clarina Clark has around 10 acres of farmland that she and her family sow with many different colors of corn. "As far as I know, my family, it’s like a survival food," she said. "That’s how I think of it. It’s food for our elders."
Right now, she said, she’s just hoping and praying that everything will bounce back. "It’s the food. It’s our native food that we have," she said. "That’s like our winter food. I don’t know, it’s just the thought of our farm areas being ruined."
The young kernels are ground for a staple bread made solely with corn. Big kernels are good for preserving and storing. And pollen is used in ceremonies and prayers.
"If there’s a dry time, and if you don’t water it right before it ripes, the kernels tend to sink, they have this funny form," she said.
They fall like a cake in the oven, she said. Clark’s thoughts turned to the vendors who help sell her produce, and the possible financial impacts for them, too. "There are worries about what’s to come, and it’s like we’re not really quite ready," she said.
Joe Ben Jr. is the farm board representative for the Shiprock Chapter, a region he calls the agricultural treasure of the Navajo Nation. He said farmers are becoming divided, and some want the irrigation water turned back on right away. "We’ve been knocked on our back," he said, "and we’re barely getting back onto our knees and hands."
Ben is also worried about the long-term effects of the spill, about heavy metals and toxic sediment being uprooted during torrential spring rains.
Right now, farmers are relying on stationary tanks filled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But Ben said those often run dry. "We are making efforts to water some fields. Hopefully that will save some people going through heart attacks," he said. "That’s the reason I’m going all-out effort, to see a little portion of their field manifest. But majority of it is not going to happen.”
Ben is advocating for a new fresh water source to be established—a pipeline from the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry—so future generations will have something they can count on in times of emergency.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.