The Navajo, Hopi, and Other Tribes from the Colorado River Basin Are Facing a Water Crisis
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The water crisis facing the Navajo, Hopi, and other Colorado River Basin (CRB) tribes is a result of several missteps in assuring the wellbeing and habitability of tribal nations and their reservation land. Additionally, Arizona is now experiencing the longest drought in the state's history. 2021 did bring in record amounts of rain during monsoon season; however, it was not enough to cure a twenty-year drought. Other issues such as mining on reservation land, legal constraints on the tribal nation's ability to collect revenue, and intense water competition from several groups are also factors in the water crisis. Lastly, lack of proper water infrastructure lies at the core of the issue, as lack of access hampers any effort to provide clean water.
Water problems are not new to the Navajo, Hopi, and other CRB tribes. In the 1930s, when increasing numbers of people began to move into and settle in states like Arizona, Nevada, and Southern California, the pressure to provide water and electricity via hydropower to the growing population severely harmed the Navajo and Hopi way of life. The rivers that tribes such as the Navajo had depended on for their traditional dry farming practices and sufficient wildlife support for hunting were suddenly redirected for drinking water and electricity. "But as technological advances led to the construction of dams and reservoirs in the early 20th century to divert rivers for new residents […] Native land went fallow leading to sickness and poverty." (Starving Cows. Fallow Farms. The Arizona Drought is Among the Worst in the Country by Jaweed Kaleem, August 3, 2021, latimes.com) Today, because of the severe drought in Arizona, the cry for water is even more crowded, often with the CRB Tribes having to fight for water. However, the Hopi and other tribes find that their needs are often overlooked due to more powerful voices claiming the increasingly dwindling resource. "The Bureau of Reclamation recently declared the first-ever shortage on the Colorado River, which means Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico will get less water than normal next year. By 2025, there's a 66% chance Lake Mead, a barometer for how much river water some states get, will reach a level where California would be in its second phase of cuts. The nation's most populated state has the most senior rights to river water." (US Projections on Drought-Hit Colorado River Grow More Dire by Associated Press, September 22, 2021, usnews.com)
Mining and naturally occurring toxins on the reservation land of the Navajo, Hopi and other CRB tribes are also factors in their water crisis. "In addition to limited accesses to water sources, the region is plagued with 523 abandoned uranium mine claims on or near Navajo Nation, including 609 mine sites and 1,265 mine features, such as waste piles and mine openings. These mines and related sites have contributed to severe rates of cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified 22 wells on Navajo Nation as exceeding safe drinking water standards due to high levels of radioactive contamination." (As Navajo Covid-19 Cases Intensify, Jason Momoa Joins Efforts to Address Water Crisis, April 18, 2021, Indigenous Environmental Network, ienearth.org) The Hopi are also in dire straits as much of their well water is poisoned by naturally occurring arsenic. Other tribes in the CRB, like the White Mountain Apache, are also facing contamination problems. "' Some homes don't have faucets,' she said [Chairwoman of the White Mountain Apache Tribal Council—Gwendena Lee-Gatewood], 'and others have water contaminated with manganese that comes out looking gray.'" (Lawmakers Propose $6.7 Billion to Bring Clean Drinking Water to Indian County by Debra Utacia Krol and Ian James, July 25, 2021, azentral.com)
Naturally occurring contaminants and contamination due to mining complicate one of the core issues surrounding the water crisis of the Navajo, Hopi, and other tribes of the CRB. That core issue is infrastructure. "Several CRB (Colorado River Basin) tribes suffer from plumbing poverty, including 30% to 40% of all Navajo Nation residents, who are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water." Additionally, the unique relationship between the federal government and reservation lands hamper the tribes' ability to self-fund projects like water infrastructure. "Unlike towns and cities, tribes cannot raise money through property taxes as reservation lands are held in trust by the federal government." (Tribes Without Clean Water Demand an End to Decades of US Government Neglect by Nina Lakhani, April 28, 2021, the guardian.com) The reality is that even if the tribes can win a fair share of clean water supply, they largely lack the infrastructure that could deliver the water to the people. There have been increased efforts to aid the Navajo, Hopi, and other tribes with their water infrastructure problems; however, the project is far too vast and complex to be executed in a piecemeal way which is what has been happening.
It was heartbreaking to research the reality of water poverty. Some of the hardest hit in our nation are the Navajo, Hopi, and other CRB tribes like the White Mountain Apache. We must not abandon them in this crisis, as we will be abandoning our humanity.
If you would like to learn more about the CRB water crisis and how you could help, check out the Navajo Water Project here.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.” You can follow Jennifer on her Instagram here.
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