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.
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.
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.
A chart from the April 28 report of the NM COVID-19 modeling group shows the disproportionate concentration of COVID-19 cases in the northwest part of New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took baby-steps to reopen New Mexico’s economy Thursday, allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside and by-appointment services, opening golf courses and making state parks available for day use starting Friday.
But the new order sidesteps the state’s epicenter of COVID-19 — New Mexico’s northwest corner. Earlier in the day Thursday, the mayor of Gallup sent a letter pleading with the governor to declare a state of emergency in the city, which accounts for just 3.5% of New Mexico’s population but 30% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“Our community is unable to adequately address the outbreak without the imposition of certain restrictions necessary to regulate social distancing, public gatherings, sales of goods, and the use of public streets,” Mayor Jackie McKinney wrote. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez “fully supports the request and is hopeful that it will help to prevent Navajo people from traveling to the border town,” said a daily press release from his office.
Indeed, a New Mexico COVID-19 modeling report available on the Department of Health website, dated Tuesday, notes the “NW region has the highest growth rate; week-over-week improvement is leveling off indicating additional actions are critical.”
The new public order announcing some loosening of the economic shutdown across the state specifically excludes McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties. And, the governor said Thursday those counties would likely see more restrictions. She did not give details, but said they were being worked on. During Thursday’s update Lujan Grisham announced a Navajo Nation Rapid Response Team, an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation.
Members of a New Mexico rapid response team focused on the Navajo Nation, listed in a slide during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 30 press conference.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer with health care officials and emergency responders at the federal medical station in Chinle, Ariz. on March 30, 2020. Photo courtesy of Navajo Nation. A federal medical station with 58 beds for COVID-19 patients is being established on the Navajo reservation at the community center in Chinle, Ariz. The beds and supplies were delivered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but it’s not enough said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez sat at a desk with Chlorox handwipes as he announced through an online broadcast that the Navajo Nation was closed to outside visitors now that two Navajo people have tested positive in the Kayenta, AZ area.
There won’t be barricaded roads, but tourist areas are closed and he asked everyone to respect the sovereignty of the Navajo Nation by not visiting during what he called an unprecedented situation. “The best thing to do is stay at home,” he said.
In making the case for travelers to not come to the Navajo Nation, he noted that the first cases that emerged in New Mexico were from people who had traveled outside the state, bringing the “bug” home. He explained “bug,” saying was the best translation of virus in the Navajo language.
Nez emphasized rapidly changing conditions, noting that recommendations from the federal government first limited gatherings to under 100, but have lowered now to groups of 10. He urged people to pay attention and to follow the advice of leaders.
“We’re not closing down churches or ceremonies, but these are recommendations, just like we’re doing now, keeping 6 feet between us, rotating in and out of this room,” he said about how he and his colleagues were operating the press conference.
The two people who tested positive are in stable condition at hospitals in Phoenix. They are from Chilchinbeto, AZ, which is in Navajo County.
Dr. Loretta Christensen, chief medical officer for the Navajo area Indian Health Service, said extensive contact tracing is happening in Chilchinbeto to identify anyone who might have been exposed to the virus through contact with the people who tested positive so they can get tested.
In total, she said there have been over 100 people tested in Navajo area IHS facilities and they have results from about 20% of those.
In the coming months, we’ll be covering the Clean Power Plan: what might happen with or without a go-ahead from the Supreme Court, how it will affect industry in New Mexico—and what it means for New Mexicans, including those living in communities where uranium mining has brought booms, busts, and legacies of contamination.