Running water is promised to the Navajo Nation in this ‘historic’ settlement, but some residents remain skeptical
With the stroke of three pens, settlement almost two decades in the making is signed into law
OLJATO-MONUMENT VALLEY, San Juan County — With southern Utah’s iconic Monument Valley as a backdrop, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez signed a landmark bill Friday morning that will grant the Navajo people a significant portion of Colorado River water, and funnel hundreds of millions of dollars into the tribe for water infrastructure.
“For too long, these poor water infrastructure conditions have burdened this community, but today we hopefully begin to turn those challenges around,” said Haaland, who was also joined by Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer and a crowd of Utah lawmakers, Navajo delegates, county commissioners, water officials, stakeholders and more.
A result of 18 years of negotiations, the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act was authorized by Congress in 2020, and fully funded by the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
It recognizes 81,500 acre-feet of water from sources within Utah’s apportionment of the Colorado River, and directs the federal government to spend at least $220 million for water infrastructure, with an additional $8 million coming from the state of Utah.
“Today is a momentous event ... this has been many years, many decades, in the making. A lot of negotiators have gone to be with the creator, but they have started the momentum,” said Nez, emphasizing that “it’s not the finish line, it’s actually the start — the start of getting water infrastructure into our Navajo communities in the state of Utah.”
Estimates vary, but about 40% of the residents on American Indian reservations lack access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Between 30% and 40% of households on the Navajo Nation, split between Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, do not have running water.
On the Utah side of the reservation, nearly 50% of homes don’t have running water. In some communities, a single well supplies water for up to 900 people.
“This is not just a generational opportunity, it’s a first-ever opportunity to have major infrastructure in some of the most remote places in the state of Utah, and to help lives improve significantly,” Cox told reporters after the signing.
Pushed by Nez’s predecessors, and championed in Congress by the late Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, then Romney, the coalition of tribal, state and federal leaders Friday said the agreement is the largest step ever taken toward closing the water gap in Utah.
The settlement also puts to rest litigation, brought on by the Navajo Nation, over access to Colorado River water.
Nez wasn’t sure exactly what projects will be prioritized with the funding, and said the government needs to step back and reevaluate. The effort will likely start by interconnecting water pipelines coming from the San Juan River, he said, taking into consideration the existing pipelines. There’s also a chance the tribe will lease some of the water to generate revenue.
“We’re ready to rock and roll, and get some of these projects done,” he said.
‘How can this be’
At the end of a long, dusty road in the small Navajo community of Oljato, just a mile from the Utah-Arizona border, Rose Atene pulled into her driveway to the chorus of yipping dogs, and a few meowing cats.
Atene lugged crates of bottled water from her car about 12 hours before the dignitaries descended on Monument Valley. The setting sun turned the rolling sandstone bluffs, her home, and most of the valley a pinkish-orange hue.
A two-story concrete structure, her house is a work in progress — she has a septic tank installed, and all the plumbing is ready. But there’s no water.
Most Americans take water for granted — and most Americans, Romney said, have a hard time believing the scale of water inequality on Utah’s tribal lands.
“It came as a surprise, I think, to many of my colleagues that about half of the people on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water,” said Romney. “How can this be, in this day and age?”
Communities on the Navajo Nation are rural and spread out. The landscape is dry, with the historic drought making water, an already scarce resource, scarcer. Years of horribly under-regulated uranium mining left many water sources polluted. The tribe was excluded from negotiations during the 1922 Colorado River Compact, which divvied up the river among seven states and Mexico. Socioeconomic hardship makes hiring contractors, paying utilities and buying infrastructure difficult for some residents.
And when water is available, a mountain of red tape often stands in the way.
Most tribal land in the U.S. is viewed as federal land when it comes to residential infrastructure. Water, electricity and telecommunications each require separate right-of-way applications, which can create a backlog.
Sometimes politics seep into the decision-making process, with some residents claiming if they were from a different clan or lived in another community, they would have running water. One woman who was waiting on her application said: “If I was building a church, I would have water by now.”
Atene applied to have water piped to her home two years ago. She paid surveyors and plumbers, and bought the hardware, but is still waiting.
Just 200 feet away is her childhood home, a modest ranch-style house with fading blue paint, where her brother lives. In a cruel twist, that home now has running water — but Atene is still waiting.
Construction materials are stacked outside her house, partly because government officials have yet to give her the go-ahead to finish building.
She’s still waiting on electricity, too, running an extension cord across the driveway to her brother’s home.
Nothing illustrates her situation better than the sink sitting on the ground, where her future bathroom will be. Instead of water, it’s filled with red dust.
“I’m OK waiting, I don’t really have a choice,” she said, standing by the blue, 50-gallon barrels she loads in the back of her pickup truck and hauls to a nearby well once a week.
For Atene, it’s typically a weekly trip — for some ranchers and farmers who lack running water, it’s a daily trip. And to complicate matters, tribal officials recently issued a boil order for the well that she frequents. Atene still trucks the water in to feed her four horses, and many dogs and cats. But she now only drinks bottled water.
“There is no reason that in 2022 every community should still be facing these types of challenges,” said Haaland Friday. Originally from New Mexico, Haaland grew up visiting her grandparents, who like thousands still today, also had to truck in water.
Politicians claim victory, but community members remain skeptical
No more than an hour after the law was signed, and the politicians trickled out, Ella Cly pulled up to a well in her white Ford pickup several miles west of Monument Valley in Goulding, and filled her 250 gallon tank with water.
Cly is not among the 50% of Utah Navajos who lack running water — but, she said, it’s too expensive to use the water pumped to her home for her horses, sheep and her sprawling garden laden with peach and apricot trees.
And like many Navajo residents who spoke with the Deseret News, Cly remains skeptical of the settlement.
“You have to live out here to know what it’s like. Things are scarce, and just bringing water won’t solve everything,” Cly said, smiling as her two grandchildren peered out of the back seat of her truck.
One any given day, the now derelict U.S. Post Office in Goulding will have a line of cars waiting to fill water tanks at the well. Sometimes people wait for hours, and a line of 15 cars can take half the day to get through.
Next in line is Ron Atine, who like Cly, also has running water where he lives. But it has an odd chemical taste, and is also too expensive to use for his livestock. So like many on the reservation, he drives to a well to fill up a tank, free of charge.
Cly and Atine echoed the sentiment from both Cox and Nez — that the landmark agreement ratified Friday was a start. They want to see more government action taken to address the pollution from uranium mining that has long plagued southeast Utah communities, the homes that still lack electricity, internet, and the various complications that persist after homes have water piped in.
For Atine, the idea that in 2022 the federal government is only now spending millions to bring water to his community, is almost insulting.
“It’s like they just realized we were here,” he said.
And while the settlement will spur a wave of water development across the northern Navajo Nation, it won’t solve the bureaucratic headache that residents like Atene, of Oljato, are coping with.
“We’re at a place where it’s hard to get things done,” she said Thursday evening. “We’re kind of the forgotten ones.”
Nez said many of those regulations are out of his control.
“There is so much federal regulation, which slows and sometimes hinders development. You can see in any tribal community you can go through, the infrastructure is needed,” he said. “Some of these policies you would think could be changed internally, but some of these you have to go through Congress. And you know, Congress has a lot more priorities, sometimes, than what’s happening in Indian Country.”
Not every regulation needs congressional approval to eradicate — it could come from the Department of Interior, which Nez said he’s advocating for.