Shanna Yazzie

Shanna Yazzie, who works with the nonprofit Dig Deep, stands next to a water well miles away from her home on the Navajo Nation reservation. The well is the only water source for her family to wash their hands. [File Photo]

According to the Centers for Disease Control, two of the best things to prevent catching COVID-19 are regular hand washing and staying home. But what if you have to drive miles down a dirt road to a communal water source just to get the water you need?

More than 40% of Navajo households in Utah lack running water or adequate sanitation, according to the office of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

“In some cases, such as in the community of Oljato on the Arizona-Utah border, a single spigot on a desolate road, miles from any residence, serves 900 people,” the office reported.

Currently, nearly 4% of the population of the Navajo Nation has tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Health.

There have already been 335 deaths, and the Navajo Nation has one of the highest mortality rates from coronavirus in the country at just under 5%.

According to experts, this is in part due to a lack of adequate access to water.

Navajo, or Diné people, are 67% more likely to not have access to running water than other Americans, according to the nonprofit Navajo Water Project.

“We have a lot of our citizens in Southeastern Utah on the Navajo Reservation that are without water, and they are so close to the San Juan River, they’re so close to all the water in the Colorado Lower Basin, and yet we are without running water and the infrastructure,” Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer said.

However, because of a bill that passed the U.S. Senate on June 4, this might — slowly — change in Utah.

Introduced by Mitt Romney (R-UT), along with Kristen Sinema (D-AZ) and Martha McSally (R-AZ), the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act was passed by the Senate as part of a larger bill encompassing water rights for tribes around the country.

The bill also included a number of other water and health provisions, including allowing tribal schools that receive federal grants to enroll employees into federal healthcare, and allowing the Indian Health Service to have sharing agreements for medical facilities with urban Indian organizations to treat Indigenous veterans.

Former U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) originally introduced the bill in 2016 after nearly 13 years of negotiations between the Navajo Nation and the federal and state governments, but it was never passed.

The bill now moves to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the legislation is sponsored by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT).

If enacted, the legislation would provide water to over 5,000 residents of the reservation, giving the Navajo Nation rights to 81,500 acre-feet of water and creates a $218 million fund for water infrastructure on the Utah portion of the reservation. $8 million of that fund will be provided by the state of Utah.

This legislation would settle claims instead of potentially costly and long litigation.

Native American water rights were guaranteed by the federal government in the 1908 Winters Doctrine; however, the federal government has also largely deferred responsibility for water rights to individual states.

Utah recognizes water rights through a seniority system. While the Navajo Reservation is 30 years older than the state of Utah, the Diné were left out of important water negotiations like the Colorado River Compact.

Despite the federal government guaranteeing tribes water access, the Navajo Nation cannot use any of the claimed water until the rights are settled.

“Tribes have long considered state courts to be hostile, and the prospect of having those same courts adjudicate Indian reserved water rights has been one of the primary motivations for pursuing negotiated settlements,” states an overview of the Winters Doctrine by the Congressional Research Service.

If the legislation is passed by the House of Representatives and enacted into law, this will be a big step legally for the Navajo Nation.

Federal and state courts have not commonly been expedient in Indigenous water rights cases. According to the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission, only three cases exist where water rights were decreed after litigation, and they all had serious caveats accompanying the legal awards.

The adjudication of water rights for the Little Colorado River has been going on for over 41 years, with the Diné as one of the claimants.

Even with favorable legislation, better access to running water might be a long way off for many Diné. Planning, approving, bidding, and building water infrastructure can take years. An additional $600 million in funding was provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, but the bill required spending it within a year. That timeline is something that isn’t easy to do on complicated infrastructure projects where every step must be approved by both federal and tribal governments.

Most recently, the CARES Act funding for the Navajo Nation has stalled so that President Nez and the Navajo Council can create a fund management plan for the relief money.

However, even if there is money for wells and water infrastructure, getting clean water could be a challenge. Groundwater on much of the reservation has been documented to be contaminated after decades of uranium and coal mining that skirted health and water quality safeguards.

Instead, the water will have to come from deeper wells, be monitored regularly, or come from treated river water, which has been overallocated in the case of the Colorado River.

In the meantime, nonprofit organizations like DigDeep, the sponsor for the Navajo Water Project, have stepped up for more immediate relief.

The Navajo Water Project provides 1,200 gallon tanks plumbed into houses, and also provides water deliveries via tanker trucks. Residents have taken it upon themselves to care for their neighbors, with organizations like Bluff Area Mutual Aid and Big Ocean Women delivering water and supplies to families on the reservation.