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Next stop: water on tap

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Lisa Song | Apr 20, 2010 05:26 PM

This weekend, thousands of Navajos will pile their trucks with 55-gallon drums and drive to the nearest watering station. If they're lucky, the lines will be short, the coin-operated water pipes will work, and they'll return home with enough to drink, wash and cook for another week.

Hauling water is a common chore in the southern Navajo Nation, where many residents must drive long distances (up to 100 miles round-trip) to fill up their containers. The region is infamously dry: groundwater aquifers are deep, hard-to-reach and depleted faster than they can be replenished. The water, when it comes, is often salty. And until 2004 -- when the Navajo Nation won a settlement for 326,000 acre-feet from the San Juan River -- the Navajos had little access to surface water. (For detailed coverage of the battle over Navajo water rights, read Matt Jenkins' 2008 story "Seeking the Water Jackpot").

For some Navajos, the wait for running water is almost over. Last Monday marked the dedication ceremony for the Eastern Navajo Waterline, which will pipe groundwater from northern areas of the New Mexico half of the Nation (near Nageezi) to the water-starved southern part (around Pueblo Pintado).


Navajo Nation map

Map of the Navajo Nation, courtesy The Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Once construction completes in 2012, an estimated 6,000 residents will have water on tap in their homes. An additional 4,000 residents live widely scattered across the region and don't have the plumbing in place to connect to the pipeline — they may be served by new water stations that are more centrally located.

The redistribution of groundwater is just an interim measure. The Eastern Navajo Waterline is part of the much larger $870 million Navajo-Gallup Water Project, authorized by President Obama in the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act of 2009 (see this HCN blog post from March 2009). By the time it's completed in 2022, the pipeline will bring water from the San Juan River and Cutter Reservoir (20 miles east of Bloomfield, NM) south to Gallup, NM.

It's uncertain just when the Eastern Navajo Waterline will be connected to the main Navajo-Gallup line, but one thing is for sure: water means liveability and economic development. Jason John, Principal Hydrologist with the Navajo Nation's Water Management Branch hopes the switch to surface water will encourage more Navajos to move into the reservation. By 2040, the completed pipeline will serve an estimated 200,000 residents.

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