Navajo Nation Waits for Water

Story and Photos by Bruce Higgins | September 28, 2010

Members of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico regularly haul water many miles to supply their homes and families.

The American way of life in the 21st Century includes some basics that we take for granted. Most of us expect to open a faucet and have good quality water flowing immediately to meet our needs for drinking, cooking, bathing, etc.

Unknown to most Americans is the fact that thousands of members of the Navajo Nation regularly haul water many miles to supply their homes and families. Most of these people live on arid land without surface water or underground water of reasonable quality at reasonable depths.

The distances to major communities with developed water systems are significant. In New Mexico, most of these people haul their plastic tanks on a dedicated flat trailer or in their truck to their local Chapter House or an area town where water is available, although it may be of questionable quality. Others may drive to Gallup, Shiprock, Bloomfield, Aztec or Farmington, NM, for their supply of water.

The Navajo Nation encompasses more square miles in Arizona than in New Mexico. The Navajos living in Arizona, likewise, drive many miles to their sources of water. The issue is not just about convenience. It is a matter of safe water for cooking, bathing and drinking.

The need is critical, especially as fuel prices rise. Consider the cost of maintenance on the vehicles on these rather primitive roads. Many of these Navajo people are living at a subsistence level, living off the land and the animals they raise for food. The life is very different from the big-city poverty dwellers, who at least have basic utility services at their command.

Rights, But No Water Yet

The Navajo people have water rights under treaties with the United States Government dating back to 1868, as well as rights granted by the Interstate Stream Commission. But they are still waiting for a pipeline system that would carry water to them.

Recently, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's “Blue Ribbon Water Commission” announced plans to build a water supply system for the Navajo people in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, with service as far south as Gallup, called the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. At this point in time, the plan for construction is primarily in New Mexico, with little construction into Arizona.

While few deny that the need for water exists in these remote areas and few deny the existence of water rights for the Navajo Nation and the lands involved, the project has been embroiled in controversy. Points of contention include water rights, adequacy of the water supply to meet additional usage demands, and cost to taxpayers for funding the project, estimated at about $800 million.

In support of the project, the Navajo Nation has entered into an agreement with the city of Farmington to provide the water treatment facilities under a contract similar to the agreement for water supplied to Shiprock, NM.

The project will involve building several larger-diameter main lines heading in the directions of subsequent distribution points. The largest line will head nearly due west from the diversion point at the source of treated water, downstream from Farmington, to Shiprock and then south to Gallup, NM.

The primary route to Gallup, using highway right-of-way, is 122 miles for the trunk line, without considering any distribution lines to the towns and chapter houses that will be served by this source. There are dozens of such towns and chapter houses within 20 to 30 miles of this trunk line.

The tentative plan also includes additional trunk lines, including service to the southeast for about 80 miles toward Cuba, NM, and south toward Crownpoint, NM, another distance of approximately 75 miles. In the I-40 corridor between Gallup and Grants, NM, and west of Gallup to the Arizona state line are numerous towns and chapter houses, most of which would use the water. This means in excess of 300 miles of the larger diameter pipelines of 24 inches and at least that many miles of 18-inch-diameter pipe and smaller. The project will involve many incidental construction items and a major control system to operate and maintain such a large system.

The overall size of the project means that it is unlikely that one single appropriation of funds will be authorized. It is, likewise, unlikely that one contract will be bid for the entire system. Officials say there will be numerous phases and segments under contract, many of which will be on goingsimultaneously. It is anticipated that the segment serving Gallup will be given early priority. It will be the largest diameter line and bring water to the most number of people. After that, the other segments will be contracted in stages.

With the involvement of the Interstate Stream Commission and the New Mexico State Engineer's Office, as well as pressure from the governor of New Mexico, the projects seem destined to become reality.

First Construction

On Sept. 11, 2008, a groundbreaking ceremony was held on the Navajo Nation Municipal Pipeline (NNMP) project, which will supply Animas-La Plata water to Shiprock. The Animas-La Plata Project, now nearing completion, appropriates water from the Animas River, a major tributary of the San Juan River. The water is diverted at a location on the south side of the city of Durango, CO. (Rocky Mountain Construction magazine featured a story on the Animas-La Plata project in the April 9, 2007, issue.)

The Navajo Nation MunicipalPipeline project has been divided into six segments. This first phase is federally funded through the Bureau of Reclamation as part of the Animas-La Plata at $60 million for approximately 29 miles of 24-inch pipeline connecting to the Farmington water treatment facility. Navajo Engineering andConstruction Authority, a tribal construction enterprise, has the first contract for the conventional pipeline work. Southwest Dakotah has the contract for three horizontal directional bores, including one bore under the San Juan River.

The additions to the Farmington water treatment facility are not in this funding package or part of this first phase of the project. The water treatment facility expansion is separately funded by the Bureau of Reclamation and is estimated to cost approximately $5 million.

The first segment contract under phase one will construct a 7-mile stretch of the pipeline from Farmington to Upper Fruitland and will be under construction immediately. This segment does not include the 2.5-mile connection to the Farmington water treatment facility. That segment will be the responsibility of the city of Farmington.

While this NNMP project is not a part of the plan to supply water to Chapter Houses to the south and to the city of Gallup, this is a significant start on supplying the designated water to the Navajo people. Contractors engaged in waterline construction should watch closely as these projects start coming to bid in the near future. These projects are soon to become priorities and, ultimately, realities.

Author Information
Freelance writer Bruce Higgins retired after a construction industry career spanning over 40 years. He lives in Farmington, NM.