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Report: Native Americans Have Most Trouble Accessing Water

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

The nearest water station for Darlene Yazzie is nine miles away at the Dennehotso Chapter House — or community center — in the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation. On Tuesday, she counted her dimes and nickels to pay for water. It costs $1.10 plus gas money to fill up two 50-gallon barrels and she's just been told the price is going up next month.

Yazzie lugged a T-shaped key as tall as her out to the well, where she dropped it down into the hole and turned the crank to open the valve.

Water gushed into the plastic barrel. A cool mist from a leak in the hose rained over us. This is Yazzie's drinking water. For her animals, she usually drives to a windmill, but on this day it was empty and the sheep were thirsty.

"There's no water in the windmill," Yazzie said. "It's dry because it's not blowing. The only way they have water is if it's blowing."

Yazzie said the windmill water isn't safe for humans anyway. Officials told her arsenic and uranium levels are too high. Yazzie and many others give the water to their animals, even though they plan to eat them.

"A lot of people died of cancer around here," Yazzie said. "I noticed that more are being diagnosed. I'm pretty sure it's because of the environment and the water."

The groundwater in some areas has been contaminated by the 521 abandoned uranium mines. And a new report called  "Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States" said gastric cancer rates doubled in the 1990s where uranium mining occurred. The EPA said unregulated drinking water sources are the greatest public health risk on the Navajo Nation.

Across the country, 44 million people are served by water systems that recently had Safe Drinking Water Act violations.

For many of us turning on the tap or flushing the toilet is something we take for granted. But a report released Monday showed more than 2 million Americans live without these conveniences. And Native Americans are more likely to have trouble accessing water than any other group.

Fifty-eight out of every 1,000 Native American households lack plumbing, compared with three out of every 1,000 white people, according to the report by  Dig Deep and the  U.S. Water Alliance. This disparity has implications for public health. They experience more deaths, poverty, and higher unemployment rates.

"We knew the problem was much bigger but when we went out to look at the data it didn't exist," said George McGraw, the founder of Dig Deep, a human rights nonprofit that has helped build water systems on the Navajo Nation. "No one could tell us from federal, to state agencies to other nonprofits just how many Americans still don't have running water or a working toilet where they live."

So McGraw commissioned experts from around the country to piece together the data they did have and come up with the water gap report. What he found was race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.

A century ago water-born illnesses were a leading cause of death. The U.S. government invested in modern water and sanitation systems and nearly eradicated those diseases. But some communities were passed over.

"Our nations didn't have access to funding for infrastructure in the same way that it's federally allocated for cities and states overall," said Mahrinah von Schlegel, an anthropologist from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico.

She said in the southwest it's expensive to build pipelines across such remote sparsely populated tribal nations.

"It's been a struggle one to get the access to that infrastructure capital and then two it's really expensive to develop some of these remote areas," von Schlegel said.

In Mexican Water, the next town over from Dennehotso, Richard Nelson helped his elderly mother haul water.

Nelson has been asking community leaders when his mom is going to get clean running water.

"A chapter official told me, 'yeah we're going to have running water,'" Nelson said. "'We're going to start laying the pipe.' It took another two whole years to do the piping system. Then they said, we're going to have water in a year. And that was two years ago."

Today federal funding for water infrastructure is a small percentage of what it once was. The Indian Health Service estimated it would cost $200 million to provide basic water and sanitation access on the Navajo Nation.

Laurel Morales was a Fronteras Desk reporter in Flagstaff from 2011 to 2020.