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Navajo See Farming Renaissance 5 Years After The Gold King Mine Spill

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

The town of Shiprock is named for a giant rock formation that appears to be sailing across the dusty desert. Many people there don’t have running water. So when the Gold King Mine dumped into its main water source, Shiprock Chapter president Duane “Chili” Yazzie said people were devastated.

“The mine spill certainly had a very significant impact on our lives, our mental emotional spiritual health,” Yazzie said. 

Water plays a critical role in Navajo ceremonies. Yazzie said when people saw the yellow sludge flow past their farms they weren’t sure what would become of their prayers, their livelihood, their families. 

“We as indigenous people continue to recognize that the spiritual and the physical aspects of our life are one and the same,” Yazzie said.

Five years ago an EPA crew investigating a mine in Colorado accidentally unleashed 3 million gallons of metal-contaminated waste into the southwest river system. Navajo researcher Brandon Francis remembers the photos of the yellow river that went viral.

“It’s shocking and it shocked people worldwide,” Francis said at a conference about managing and improving water quality.

Since the accident Francis has tested the amount of metals that might remain in irrigation ditch water, soil and crops.

“Even though some of the levels were high you would have to consume at least 40 servings a day over an extended period of time for the heavy metal contamination to actually affect you,” Francis said. 

Still many people refused to farm until recently. Over the last four months the Navajo Nation has gone from having the highest coronavirus infection rate in the country to a steady decline in cases. Now tribal leaders don’t want members to travel to surrounding states where numbers are spiking. So Francis says more people are staying home and farming.

“There has been a surge in interest,” Francis said. “Seeds were hard to come by. They flew off the shelves just as fast as toilet paper did.” 

Historically Navajos have lived off the land. But decades of assimilation, forced relocation and dependence on federal food distribution programs changed that.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the Navajo Nation a food desert. People travel up to 40 miles to get their groceries. But Navajo farmer Tyrone Thompson says they don’t have to.

“As we’ve seen the shelves emptying of food and toilet paper we kind of reconnect to our roots,” Thompson said. “Some of the tools that were given by our elders and our ancestors, our planting stick and our steering sticks, those are our weapons against hunger and poverty and sickness.”

Upstream in Colorado dozens of historic mines are still leaking and many of them could surge once again endangering farming on the Navajo Nation as well as wildlife in the river system. It’s an area called the Bonita Peak Mining District, which includes the Gold King Mine. Peter Butler is the chairman of an advisory group that’s working with the EPA to prevent another spill, like a nearby mine that’s had two major blowouts in recent years. 

“Nobody wants to go in there and find out what’s going on because who knows the water could be backed up again,” Butler said. “You’re going back in there and if of course it releases, it's a death trap.” 

The EPA has recognized the seriousness of the spill and made it a super fund site. Ironically that’s created even more red tape to remediate all of the hazardous mines. It’s also raised the costs.

So now Butler says the question becomes “how much are you willing to spend to try to reduce the risk of unplanned surges when they may or may not happen?” 

Downstream the Navajo are now counting on clean water to irrigate their crops and become a self-sustaining nation during a pandemic.

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