Navajo Nation Water Shortage

The Navajo Nation comprises a total land area of 27,425 square miles, spanning parts of three states (Arizona, New Mexico and Utah). This area is roughly equivalent to the state of West Virginia, and is larger than ten of the smallest states in the US. It has the largest area of any other tribal reservation in the country. Most of it is in one contiguous area with small isolated portions in New Mexico referred to as “the checkerboard”. Other tribes which surround the Navajo Nation include the Ute to the north, Jicailla Apache in the east, Hualapai to the west, and the Zuni and White Mountain Apache to the south. The contiguous Navajo lands completely surround the Hopi Indian Reservation. About 175,000 Navajo Nation members, plus a small minority of non-members, live within the borders of the Navajo Nation, and almost as many members live outside of that territory. All of the territory is in the Colorado Plateau with elevations that range from 5,000 feet to 11,000 feet. The Continental Divide goes through the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation. Much of the territory consists of arid desert, but also includes alpine forests, mountains, mesas and high plateaus.

The Navajo Nation began with a much smaller core granted to the Navajo people by the treaty of 1868, and has since increased in area through various additions. Its capital is in Window Rock, Arizona, established in the early 1930’s.

Membership in the Navajo Nation requires at least one quarter Navajo blood and currently numbers over 300,000 individuals. It is uncertain whether the Navajo or the Cherokee are the most populous tribe, but it is difficult to judge as the Cherokee define membership in different and less strict terms. There are no urban centers within the Navajo Nation and paved roads are in the minority. Most of the employed population make their living from small-scale farming and ranching, oil, or mining of uranium or coal. About 40 to 45% are unemployed and the number of those living in poverty is high as well. A portion of the population eek out a subsistence living with small farms and animal husbandry. The Navajo language is surviving relatively well with almost three quarters of Navajo members living on the reservation speaking it as their first language.

The EPA estimates that up to 30% of the Navajo population (approximately 54,000 people) are not served by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s public water systems. As a result, it is estimated that the Navajo are approximately 60 times more likely than other Americans to live without access to clean running water or a toilet. Primary reasons include:

  • Nearly four million tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo lands from 1944 to 1986. Today, the mines are closed, but a legacy of uranium contamination remains, including over 500 abandoned uranium mines.
  • Groundwater drinking sources have elevated levels of radiation, possibly due to dust from uranium abandoned mines and waste piles.
  • The groundwater is typically very deep and the cost of drilling is exorbitantly expensive due to the difficulty of getting drilling equipment into this remote location over rough roads and the risk of drilling into uranium veins.
  • Radioactive building materials leach into the soil and groundwater.
  • Many residences do not have electricity to pump water if a well was drilled.
  • Drilling a shared well is not always practical because the area is sparsely populated and there are great distances between houses.
  • There is too little rainfall to make on-going rainwater catchment practical.

Currently, many homes on the reservation are getting by on seven gallons of water a day. If you want to help fund water delivery to isolated residences on the Navajo reservation, we encourage you to designate “Navajo Water Project” when making your donation to Earth Water Alliance.

Together we can make a difference.

Sources: Environmental Protection Agency, wikipedia, various public domain documents, St. Bonaventure Indian School and Mission, and Navajo Population Profile 2010 U.S. Census (December 2013), Hearing before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on October 23, 2007 serial no. 110-97.

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