Bringing Clean, Running Water to the Navajo Nation

May 3, 2021, 12:45 PM, Posted by

Broken promises and structural racism have deprived New Mexico’s Navajo Nation of safe, running water for generations. A Navajo woman shares how she is actively changing this reality, one family at a time.

Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members. The "Water Lady" Darlene Arviso fills water tanks for Navajo tribal members who do not have access to running water. Photo credit: DigDeep, 2019.

Go to the sink, turn on the tap, get yourself a glass of water. To most people in America, this sounds like the most routine of activities. But for the families I work with on the lands of the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico, it is not something we can take for granted. And so when water does flow from a faucet inside a home for the first time, the tears often flow with it. This is a moment of deep gratitude and joy for us.

Tó éí ííńá át’é. In the Navajo language, that means water is life. You’ll see these words painted onto our homes and graffitied across the landscape because we understand that life can not be sustained without water. In our culture, it is a sacred element, along with Earth, fire, and air.

And yet almost one-third of my tribe lacks running water. Pause for a moment to consider what that means. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that people in America use an average of 80-100 gallons of water every day. Our families know how to preserve scarce resources, so we use a lot less than that—but meeting basic water needs is still a complex, time-consuming task. Imagine the difficulty of attaching a hose to a 55-gallon water barrel, filling a bucket, and hauling it inside every time you want to cook, bathe, do laundry, or clean the house. Add in the costs of buying bottled water to make sure that what you drink is safe.  

And then think about the steps to make even that possible. Many people drive two hours, twice a month, to reach the closest towns of Gallup or Grants for their water supply. A day or two after government benefit checks arrive, I see a familiar caravan of trucks bumping along rutted dirt roads. Usually, two large storage tanks are weighing down their cargo beds, one for water, the other for propane, because we don’t have natural gas out here either.

That is not the promise made to us when we signed a treaty more than 150 years ago pledging peace with the federal government in exchange for creating a permanent Navajo homeland and the basic infrastructure it requires. But promises made, promises broken has been a long tradition in Native communities and we know how to step forward to do things for ourselves. I’m honored to work as project manager for the Navajo Water Project, an initiative of DigDeep, a human rights organization committed to making sure everyone in America has clean, running water.

The DigDeep water system we bring to remote homes in this corner of the state is brilliant in its simplicity and the entire install takes just a day. Our crew first buries a 1,200-gallon tank deep enough into the soil so that the water won’t freeze, and then technicians plumb a sink, water heater, filter and drain line. After solar panels are placed to power the system, the tank is ready to be filled. That job usually falls to the inveterate Darlene Arviso, known to all as the water lady, who maneuvers a huge yellow water truck to the often-isolated site. Darlene is a personal hero to me and she’s out there no matter how cold the temperature or how muddy the road (read about Darlene in this wonderful picture book).

Then there is just one more step: gather the family around, open the faucet, and watch the water flow. The elders, many of whom have never lived with running water in their homes, sometimes seem overwhelmed. There are cheers, applause, and yes, those tears. A bowl of water may be quickly set down for the puppy.

Recalling that scene has kept me optimistic in this terribly hard year. The importance of clean water has never been clearer than when COVID-19 struck—here we are telling people to wash their hands and sanitize their surfaces yet many lack the most basic tools for doing so.

During the pandemic, many of our young people, who had scattered from their traditional lands, lost their jobs and returned home, putting more demand on the limited water supply. In the midst of all that, we had to hit pause on installing new systems, although we continued to fill existing tanks and gave some families 275-gallon, food-grade storage tanks to set up outside their homes.

We also prepared for a new round of installations when conditions permit and I’m proud to say we are expanding into a nearby region. A lot of trust-building has to happen as we grow so we are working closely with community leaders and the chapter houses that represent local governance within the Navajo Nation. Residents who meet us for the first time ask pointed questions about our plans and question whether we will follow through. Past experiences have left them understandably skeptical, but we make ourselves visible, request their support, and tell them we’re here—and that we’ll be back tomorrow.

My own family had running water when I was growing up, but many of my friends did not. I want to see that change. My hope is that one day the homes of every Navajo person will be hooked up to a water system, with indoor plumbing, a really nice shower, a commode, and a sink. That is what I wish for my tribe and indeed for all in America. There are two million people without running water in this country, most of them in communities of color, low-income communities, and tribal communities.

In Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States, DigDeep tells the story of six of those communities and lays out an action plan that asks us to reimagine the solution, deploy resources strategically, build community power, and foster creative collaborations. Read the plan and consider how a nation with so much wealth and opportunity can make it real.

For many people of color, rural and tribal communities, critical utilities are unavailable, unaffordable, unreliable and even unsafe. Learn how communities across the nation are confronting the issue by building health and equity into three essential utility services.   


About the Author

Cindy Howe

Cindy Howe is DigDeep's project manager in New Mexico, where she works to secure water access and rights for Navajo people.