Navajo-Gallup water delay spurs problem solving in arid Southwest

Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use. “I’m not in crisis mode,” said Dennis Romero, Water and Sanitation Director for the City of Gallup, but “it could go to crisis mode very quickly.”

The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024.

A century of federal indifference left generations of Navajo homes without running water

When Julie Badonie was growing up in the small Navajo community of Tohatchi in the 1940s, her father drove a horse-drawn wagon early each morning to a nearby spring. There, he filled wooden barrels with water the family would use that day to drink, cook, and wash. 

Badonie, the youngest of seven children, including brothers who fought in World War II and the Korean War, or one of her siblings would go along. She remembers it as fun. At home, a hose siphoned the water into buckets to bring into the house. Badonie left for boarding school in kindergarten, first just a few miles across town, then several days’ travel away in Crownpoint, where an older sister worked as a cook, and eventually, all the way to Albuquerque for high school.

As water reaches eastern Navajo communities, it brings possibilities and homecomings

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.

Mutual aid groups rushed to the rescue during COVID-19

Just enough to get people through — not a gallon of bleach, but a 4-ounce mason jar of it, half a dozen diapers, a few cups of beans, a bag of potatoes, some vegetables, a pound of hamburger meat. Almost every day, Albuquerque Mutual Aid volunteers sanitize and pack items, then load them into cars. Wearing masks and gloves, they drop care packages at people’s doors and photograph them to confirm delivery. 

The goal: fast, responsive care, particularly for those who might fall through the cracks. 

“All the barriers that people run into when they’re trying to access food, that’s what we try to address,” said Selinda Guerrero, with Fight For Our Lives. The organization pulled together with other groups to help people as the COVID-19 pandemic threw some New Mexicans out of work or made venturing out a risk they didn’t want to take. 

Roughly 90 volunteers help buy and sort groceries. They take donated food, too, including granola bars and cereal from General Mills that would otherwise be thrown away.

Santa Fe Indian School pivots to offline learning to ensure access during COVID-19 pandemic

The Santa Fe Indian School campus, photographed this fall, has been closed for the pandemic. Faith Rosetta/SFIS

For their first online assignment, five of Jennifer Guerin’s 15 students in library science submitted homework. She expected it. Library science is an elective at the Santa Fe Indian School and Guerin had encouraged her students to focus on core classes, but the low turnout signaled that a shift to online learning might not work. Even with Chromebooks or laptops sent home with students, teachers had noted about a third of their students weren’t participating in online sessions.