For a while, Chee Smith Jr. thought he was going to have to send his father to die among strangers. His family lives at Whitehorse Lake, a Navajo chapter where, until a few years ago, roughly 550 of 700 residents had no running water in their homes, including Smith’s. As Smith’s father aged and his health worsened, it became harder and harder for him to live at home.
“We had to haul water from the chapterhouse or the watering points every day for just basic things — for cooking, for laundry, for stuff like that, and also for our livestock,” Smith said. “It takes a big toll. … It gets worse in the winter when it gets muddy.”
The drive to the chapterhouse, the headquarters for local tribal governance, took 20 or 30 miles roundtrip. If the well there ran low, as they sometimes do, the next closest source required 100 miles round trip, sometimes on ice, or in blowing snow, or on dirt roads that stay slick enough days after a storm to send a vehicle skidding. Some people avoid the slick mud by leaving home before dawn to drive on the roads while the mud is still frozen, then wait until after dark, when the ruts re-freeze, to drive home again.
“We get to the watering point, and then let’s hope that the pipes are not frozen,” said Smith, former chapter president for Whitehorse Lake.
If the water ran, they filled 50-gallon barrels, which weighed more than 400 pounds, and drove them home, where water came inside in buckets and jugs. No running water also means no bathrooms in the house, and bundling up against the cold to visit an outhouse in winter.
“He didn’t want to go to a rest home. … He thought he’d be lonely because he didn’t know anybody,” Smith said.
An estimated 30 to 40% of homes on the Navajo Nation lack running water, a share second only to the rate found in remote Alaskan villages. The size of the reservation and complexity of its terrain are often blamed, but the failures start with a federal system that promised to provide a home for Navajo people, who call themselves Diné, when establishing the reservation, but has yet to deliver a fully functioning one.
Indian Health Service reports first linked devastating rates of infectious diseases among Native Americans to the absence of basic sanitary facilities in residences a century ago. Since then, infectious diseases have been an ongoing crisis, which the world took note of last year as COVID-19 spread through and ravaged the Navajo Nation. Following guidelines around washing hands and staying home were all but impossible for people who must leave home to replenish their reserves of water and who can’t even turn on a tap to wash their hands.
Addressing lack of water in homes runs into a catch in where to start: begin plumbing communities and houses when there is no water, or build the trunkline that brings water nearby when there are no local waterlines to connect it to the people who live alongside it. The Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, under construction in New Mexico’s Navajo communities, is testing these approaches.
The project has two main trunk lines, one that runs from the San Juan River to Gallup along Highway 491, called the San Juan Lateral, and another much smaller one that follows Highway 550’s route through a string of Navajo chapters — Huerfano, Nageezi, Counselor, Pueblo Pintado, Ojo Encino, Torreon, and Whitehorse Lake — from east of Bloomfield into Jicarilla Apache communities north of Cuba, called the Cutter Lateral. On the San Juan Lateral, federal funds are paying to construct a trunkline that communities will then need to find money and develop projects to tap into.
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But the Cutter Lateral connects to local chapters that linked water systems in anticipation of its arrival. That grassroots organizing, cooperation, and determined fundraising by a group of Navajo communities aided the Cutter Lateral’s progress toward completion and compelled the federal agencies managing the project into faster action. It also brought water to almost every home in Whitehorse Lake, piped from a well in a nearby community, years before the trunkline was finished in 2020.
“We were basically tying into parts of a system that was started before our project was authorized,” said Pat Page, manager of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Four Corners office, which is overseeing the Navajo-Gallup Water Project. “It really is a great example of collaboration on many different levels.”
Since the water turned on, five families moved back to the community, Smith said: “A couple of them came back to me, they said ‘Thank you for helping me, that’s what we needed, the running water and electric. That’s the main reason we moved back.’ They’re happy about it.”
For Smith’s father, the water came just in time.
“My dad was very emotional when he turned on the faucet. He couldn’t believe water was coming out,” Smith said. Water meant caretakers could come to him. He was able to spend his last year at home and die among family.
Smith had begun thinking he might have to send his father to spend his last months in an assisted living facility in Farmington.
Andrew Robertson, a civil engineer with Souder, Miller and Associates, was at a Torreon chapterhouse meeting discussing how to reach a few families without water when an Indian Health Service engineer first mentioned the idea of a project to pipe San Juan River water to these communities.
“At first it was, ‘Yeah, right. … Sure, bring water down from the San Juan River,’” Robertson said.
For those families in Torreon, a water line to their homes wouldn’t help, because there wasn’t any water to fill it. Groundwater wells tap into unregulated water supplies that come with health concerns and are running low in several parts of New Mexico. A pipeline to bring in reliable, high-quality drinking water offered a real solution.
Robertson has focused his career on water access. He first worked along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, where he sometimes dug the trenches himself for a new pipeline. When he moved to New Mexico in 2000, he quickly saw Navajo communities facing the greatest need for that work. Working on construction projects has taken him all over the Navajo Nation.
After that meeting at Torreon, a local leader started rallying other chapters around the idea of a regional system, even before Congress approved the settlement for the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project.
“The chapters got together … and said, ‘We’re going to push for this project. Whether we get a settlement or not, we’re going to regionalize our water system. At the very least we’ll have a regional system among chapters to share water, so if one chapter’s well goes down, we can help them out,’” Robertson recalled.
The Navajo Nation and state of New Mexico had signed a settlement around how much water the Navajo Nation could draw from the San Juan River, a tributary of the tightly allocated Colorado River, in 2005. But it was another four years before Congress approved that settlement, clearing the way for funding and construction to begin in 2012. That settlement included the Cutter Lateral, a far smaller project than the San Juan Lateral, at just 4,645 acre-feet per year compared to 37,000.
The environmental impact statement for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project mapped a rough line marking a pipeline to that area, said Jason John, director of the Navajo Department of Water Resources. Communities used that concept to route the pipeline to existing water systems, avoiding culturally sensitive sites and private property.
“The communities already had concrete plans on where the lines would be built, and some of it was already put into place,” John said. “They kind of got a running start before the federal funding from the settlement started flowing.”
They’d essentially put the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the position of playing catch up. But Robertson said those federal agencies also went on to collaborate and cooperate — to listen to what the people this pipeline was serving were asking for.
It hadn’t started out looking as though things would go that way.
When the federal government came to talk to Navajo Nation residents about the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project in summer 2007, they held a series of meetings in border towns and chapter houses as part of drafting the environmental impact statement. Navajo Nation residents drove hours to attend, only to find the explanatory video about the project ran only in English and not Navajo and that they were given just a few minutes to talk.
Leonard Tsosie, a council delegate with the Navajo Nation representing Whitehorse Lake, Pueblo Pintado, and Torreon chapters and a former New Mexico state senator, said he’d come into the meeting optimistic.
“On the way over I saw a rainbow over Crownpoint, and it was a good sign, and so I just want to mention that,” Tsosie said. “I think it’s a blessing. And also rain. I saw raindrops. So that’s a blessing. It’s a blessing because this is a matter of survival for our people and for the communities.”
He asked the federal staff to consider giving more time to the elders speaking in Navajo: “It’s also not too polite to cut them off. So if you could take that into account also, because they have a lot to say about this.”
“Thank you,” was all the hearing officer said in reply.
The meeting was about listening to people, not answering questions, but people had questions. Hadn’t there been a previous project? (There had been.) Didn’t it go farther east? Why were some places left out? Stories poured forth, too.
Robertson told the visiting federal officials that in the seven years he had worked on water projects for the eastern Navajo Agency, he’d seen a friend need surgery and spend days hospitalized because of years of chronic dehydration. Another friend’s father had a leg amputated because he didn’t have water to wash the pressure sores from his diabetes.
“I’ve had a chance to see firsthand the need for water. It is very real. It is very dire, and it is very urgent,” he testified. “I know of, in the Torreon and Ojo Encino area, at least four projects alone, which would serve 800 or 900 people that are not being built because there’s not — even though there’s funding available to extend the water lines, there is not enough water to fill the pipes. The pipes would be full of air. And that problem will not go away until a water supply is made available to those chapters.”
As in, even if these communities came together and built a pipeline, local wells could stretch only so far. They needed that water from the San Juan River. The Chapter President from Ojo Encino said three wells in that area supplied water lines to that community and its neighbors, but the water table was dropping. Wells that provided for ranchers, homes, and churches were becoming useless holes in the ground that the New Mexico Environment Department recognized as a pending emergency. Houses burned when water pressure ran low in fire hydrants.
The absence of water cascades. In addition to complicating every step of daily life — from washing hands, to making stew or having a cup of tea, to doing the dishes afterwards, it drives up illnesses and complicates public health issues. No water meant a school wasn’t built in Torreon, and other buildings were abandoned because of dry taps. Businesses didn’t open, medical clinics couldn’t operate, jobs drifted away.
Whitehorse Lake Chapter and Pueblo Pintado had both been denied housing — the square, stucco-sided houses with peaked roofs housing agencies often construct — because there was no water for those houses. People who might have preferred to stay where they grew up moved to cities to have running water. Tsosie called it “the brain drain” and “the people drain.”
“When there’s no water, there’s no developments,” Chee Smith Jr. told federal officials. “So we’re kind of still like in the — kind of like a third-world nation.”
Frank Willetto, who had lived in Pueblo Pintado for 50 years and served as its chapter president since 1986, said Pueblo Pintado, by his count, is 70 miles from Farmington, 48 miles from Crownpoint, 100 miles from Gallup.
“So we’re out there,” he told the visiting officials in 2007. “A lot of people say ‘nowhere,’ but we know where we are.”
The chapterhouse had a public high school, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding school, an Indian Health Service clinic, and a store, but not even half of their residents had water.
“The chapter is trying to get water to each hogan or house or trailer house,” he said. “When you don’t do things for your community, that means you are doing bad things for that community. And water is number one that we need.”
Willetto, who had been awarded the Congressional Silver Medal for his service as a Navajo Code Talker during World War II, had been denied veteran’s benefits to build a house because there were no fire hydrants in his community. He would be taken to Congress to tell that story again as lawmakers considered approving the settlement between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico, and he’d go to Washington, D.C. on the day President Obama signed the bill approving the settlement. But he didn’t live long enough to see water in the pipes.
“The communities regard the water project as a priority,” Tsosie said. “They’ve been waiting a lifetime for this.”
Before the Cutter Lateral broke ground in Whitehorse Lake, a traditional Navajo medicine man blessed the earth on which it would be built, the people who would work on the project, and the communities who would receive its water. Again, when the Bureau of Reclamation and Navajo Nation Water Commission began construction on the lateral’s water treatment facility, the ground was blessed, and again, when everything was finished last fall.
“It’s spiritual. I don’t know how I would describe it — the same way as a person praying in a church, I guess. Asking the lord for spiritual help, spiritual guidance,” Smith said. “That it will happen, that it will help our people, and nothing will get in the way. … That’s what we bless it for, and that it will help our people.”
Even the reservoir, a pool of blue nestled among a maze of mesas in northern New Mexico, miles from the San Juan River that feeds its water and far down dirt roads from any town, was blessed. The reservoir sits above Blanco Canyon, where a single lane bridge crosses a section of the dry wash. Signs caution to yield to oncoming traffic, and watch for flash floods, which could swamp a car in the depression between where the bridge ends and the riverbank climbs out of the floodplain. Tamarisk line the banks, their bare branches red in winter. A few houses perch on promontories overlooking the empty riverbed and the canyon walls, where lines of junipers mark layers in the rock and dirt. Propane tanks and firewood sit alongside the houses. School bus stops appear on the side of some of the graded dirt roads, sometimes where there’s not a house in sight.
Blue posts dot the horizon, marking the buried pipeline. The line weaves among more prevalent natural gas pipelines, marked with yellow posts. All of it has the beginnings of a grown-over, nondescript look, as though it has been there for ages. The first piece of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project began running in October.
Water came first to Huerfano, the closest community to the source, at the start of a six-month testing phase. Other communities will come online this year, all the way to Jicarilla Apache land.
For some communities, the project means access to running water. For others, the groundwater quality is poor, so this connects residents with water they might actually enjoy drinking, moves them off increasingly strained groundwater wells, and reduces risk of exposure to heavy metals, which are known to be prevalent in New Mexico’s groundwater. In others, more water means a chance to grow.
“All things they need, and things we take for granted like schools and gas stations, they couldn’t build because there wasn’t enough water to provide those services,” Robertson said.
The first 24 hours the pumps ran for the Cutter Lateral, Robertson slept in the pumphouse. Though it dropped down to 50 degrees that autumn night, the engines kept the building so hot that he turned on the air conditioning. Noise filled the room, and he slept, listening for rattling, a shift in the hum, or anything else that indicated a problem.
“Just to make sure,” he said. “After all this time, I wanted to make sure everything was good.”
Whitehorse Lake sits in an arid, treeless landscape. Smith moved away for college and worked as a civil engineer in Tucson for eight years. But the heat proved unbearable and he missed home and the friends he’d grown up with, who had been left wondering what had happened to him. So he went to work as an engineer for the BIA and moved back to Whitehorse Lake. That time away, a college degree, and his work as a civil engineer, he said, prepared him to get things done for his chapter.
“This is my homeland, it’s where I grew up and my relatives still live out here,” Smith said. “You know how it is, I’m just used to being out here because that’s where I was raised, and I like this place.”
One paved road connects Whitehorse Lake to Grants, 50 miles away, which takes a solid hour to drive. People drive that far or farther, to Gallup or Farmington, both about an hour and a half away, Smith said, “to go grocery shopping or just to get a hamburger.”
The closest police station is in Crownpoint, 40 minutes away. Even until a few years ago, to make calls on their cell phones, people living in Whitehorse Lake had to drive miles to find a signal. They’d park on the side of the road while they talked. The only alternative was to use the office phone at the chapterhouse, which also housed a shower that residents pay to use. Electricity is also still missing from some homes, as are indoor bathrooms. All the services in the chapter come from the chapterhouse and senior center.
“I guess the big issue is, people just don’t want to live out here, because there’s no stores, the roads are dirt, so I guess that’s why we ran out of business,” Smith said.
Whitehorse Lake wasn’t originally on the map for the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, but when chapters in that area began organizing a regional water system, they decided to include a pipeline between it and Pueblo Pintado, about a dozen miles from Whitehorse Lake and divided from it by the long buttress of tawny sandstone that is Chaco Mesa.
“The eight chapters decided they weren’t going to leave anyone out,” Robertson said. “So [when] Whitehorse Lake said ‘We want to be part of this, and we’re going to step up.’ The other chapters who had put their own money into it said they were okay with some of their money going to support Whitehorse Lake. Think about that for a minute — it’s like people in Bernalillo County saying we’re okay with our money helping people in McKinley County.”
The water flowing into the Cutter Lateral system will eventually reach all the way to Whitehorse Lake. With water, Smith hopes more stores, a gas station, and a laundromat, saving the drive to Gallup or Grants to wash clothes, could follow for Whitehorse Lake and Pueblo Pintado.
“Years ago, when we asked for stores, housing, stuff like that, and they’d tell us, ‘There’s no water. We can’t do it,’” Smith said. “There’s no excuses anymore. They can’t say there’s no water. We have water now — so start building.”
With water, Smith said, it’s time the Navajo Tribal Housing Authority reconsider allowing construction. Smith still attends meetings with updates on the San Juan Lateral, the bigger piece of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, and encourages other communities with water on the way to push for development. In Crownpoint, a bit of a headquarters for the region, he’s encouraging officials to think about everything from fast food to banks to colleges.
“I want to see development, see improvements for my people,” Smith said. “That’s what keeps me going. … I want to see better things for my people.”
Reporting for this story was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society’s Covid-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists and The Water Desk at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism.