PHOENIX – Arizonans are facing water shortages as the Colorado River declines, but Teddy Lopez and many other residents of the Navajo Nation have lived without easy access to clean water for decades.
Lopez, 66, has learned that nothing is guaranteed – with water or in life.
“I just take it one day at a time and try to work what I can, what I can do,” said Lopez, who in August received news no one wants to hear.
“I have cancer, so I just take care of my family, I guess,” said Lopez, who lives with his wife in Lybrook, New Mexico, and his daughter and grandchildren come to cook meals for him every day.
There’s not much in Lybrook, a small town about 60 miles south of Farmington, to take his mind off his health. So Lopez gardens.
“I’ve got tomatoes. My garden, you know, it’s wonderful.”
But the water sustaining that bounty isn’t guaranteed, either. The Lybrook Water Association relies on groundwater, which is rapidly declining in the Four Corners area, and it has to do regular maintenance on its system.
“When they go clean the tank out … they tell us about a week ahead of time and then we store water,” Lopez said. “We store water for our toilet bowl, and we store water for bathing and stuff like that, in separate containers.”
Lopez is not the only one. Jason John, director of water resources for the Navajo Nation, said other areas of northern New Mexico and Arizona also desperately lack water – a situation he calls “life-altering.”
“In some parts of Navajo (Nation), it’s difficult to imagine us sustaining ourselves only on groundwater,” John said. “There’s many communities that don’t have reliable groundwater sources that we’re already importing groundwater from other places to get them water.”
That reliance on groundwater on the reservation is the reason the federal government stepped in more than a decade ago. Lopez hopes it will be more stable and healthy for his family.
“If the Navajo water, the Cutter Lateral, came in, then it (the water) would be a lot cheaper,” Lopez said.
The Cutter Lateral is one of two pipelines that carry water from two treatment plants, aided by several pumping stations. They make up the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project, which is more than a decade old but isn’t expected to be finished until 2029.
The need is urgent: In 2020, the Indian Health Service estimated that more than 9,600 homes on the Navajo reservation did not have access to clean water. More than 40% of Navajo Nation households rely on hauling water to meet their daily needs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which is overseeing the construction of the Navajo-Gallup project.
Pat Page, a construction engineer who manages the Bureau of Reclamation office overseeing the project, said solutions were discussed for more than four decades. The stars eventually aligned in 2005, when the Navajo Nation and New Mexico signed a water rights agreement settling the tribe’s claims on the San Juan River Basin.
The federal government didn’t enter the picture until 2009, Page said, when Congress authorized many infrastructure projects, including Navajo-Gallup, under Public Law 111-11.
The bureau’s goal is to divert more than 37,000 acre feet of water from the San Juan Basin – enough water to fill 37,000 football fields to a depth of 1 foot. That water will go to three places: the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and Gallup, New Mexico. Based on predicted population growth, the project by 2040 should serve 250,000 people in an area the size of New Jersey.
Construction is well underway, and Page hopes to get water to people like Lopez soon.
“Two hundred fifty miles out of the 300 miles of pipe are either in the ground or under construction,” Page said. “But we still do have some big items left to construct, which puts us about 50% completed.”
Residents living in these areas struggle to get water. John said that struggle can be life-altering.
“Your life is totally different,” he said. “How you spend your free time, how you ration the water, how you cook and how you clean – it’s a different lifestyle.”
Ninety percent of reservation residents who do receive water rely on groundwater, which can’t be replenished as quickly as surface water.
That’s what the project is meant to fix.
“We’re essentially replacing that groundwater supply with the treated surface water supply,” Page said, “which makes it more reliable, more sustainable and then probably in many cases, definitely improved quality water.”
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one part of the project already is up and running.
“We were able to complete the construction on the Cutter Lateral,” Page said. “October of 2020, we began the initial water deliveries to communities.”
The Cutter Lateral stretches water pipelines from Blanco to Pueblo Pintado in New Mexico. It was fully operational in July 2021 and brings water to eight Navajo communities.
It also goes through Lybrook, where Lopez lives. But he’s still struggling to get water.
“There’s a rancher that lives between (me and) the water line,” Lopez said, “and we have to go around his place.”
Lopez isn’t the only one experiencing problems. The second pipeline – the San Juan Lateral – remains under construction. Public Act 111-11 from 2009 grants 6,411 acre feet of water to the Navajo project areas in Arizona, where the majority of the reservation lies.
But there’s a catch.
“We could not deliver any water into Arizona through the project until the Navajo Nation as a whole resolves its water rights claims in Arizona,” John said.
John is referencing another section of Public Law 111-11, which requires the tribe to “waive (its) claims to water in the Lower Basin and the Little Colorado River Basin” in Arizona before Navajo-Gallup project water can be delivered. It also states that the Navajo Nation would need to enter a “water supply delivery contract” for the San Juan basin water.
In essence, the Navajo Nation would need to give up some of its water before getting access to the new system, which would be out of tribal control.
“We basically have a pipeline that has the capacity to deliver water to Arizona, but we just can’t,” John said. “We are trying to address these issues piece-by-piece. We understand that all of these families who don’t have water today, they need some kind of water sooner or later.”
Until then, Arizona residents on the San Juan Lateral can’t receive water from the project, even if the pipes are in place.
John said he believes water should be a basic human right.
“That is the language that’s in there,” John said. “We can’t give any water through the project to residents in Arizona. And you would think that that type of language wouldn’t occur in the United States, but it does.”
The tribe is not going to settle, he said. That stalemate, along with financial needs for the project, are some of the reasons why the completion date moved from 2024 to 2029.
Page still believes the project will make an impact.
“It doesn’t just meet the immediate needs, but it also is going to meet the needs and really change the lives of generations to come,” he said.
Lopez said he looks forward to that change. It would add to the good news he received in February 2021.
“They called me in, and I went in, and then he (physician) asked me, ‘What’ve you been eating, Ted?’” Lopez said. “And I said, ‘Well, one stew (mutton) and frybread.’ He said, ‘Go ahead, be my guest. Eat a lot more of that because you don’t have cancer anymore.’”
But just like finding water, it’s not guaranteed.
“He said, ‘There’s a catch there, it might come back,” Lopez said. “So we’re going to have to take a blood draw every, every month.”
Lopez remains patient, remembering he can only take his days – and his water – one step at a time.