Every morning, Darlene Arviso picks up her water truck at the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission, a cluster of brown trailers in Thoreau, New Mexico, and fills her 3,500-gallon tank from a metal water tower before setting out across the Navajo Nation.
Arviso, 50, has a long braid of black hair streaked with gray, and she speaks softly, in short sentences, her eyes fixed on the road. “You can’t drink that water,” she told me one clear blue morning in November, as we turned off the highway and passed a smattering of homes around a muddy pond. “It’s only for animals.”
Born on the reservation a few miles from Thoreau, Arviso grew up hauling water from the local church. For a while, she worked as a silversmith, then as a truck driver for construction crews in Albuquerque. Her days started at 3 a.m., so she could get to the city by 5:00. The driving didn’t bother her, but she missed seeing her children. As she got older, she found herself thinking about her grandfather, who was a medicine man, and his instinct to help people. When St. Bonaventure needed a driver for its new water truck, Arviso applied.
That was six years ago. Her clients call her the “water lady,” but she’s more than a delivery woman. She’s also the tether between the far-flung homes on a wide stretch of this shrubby, rocky, high-desert plateau. Arviso gives her cellphone number to all her clients, and sometimes they call her, asking for help. Perhaps they need food or extra blankets, or simply someone to talk to. “Sometimes,” she told me, “I’ll just pray with them.”
Arviso lives in a world that is hard for outsiders to comprehend. Nearly 40 percent of the estimated 173,000 Navajos living on the reservation lack access to running water. Although some have moved to newer, more centralized communities with water and electricity, many prefer to stay on the remote land they’ve occupied for generations.
“We’re a rural people,” Edmund Yazzie, a tribal lawmaker, says. “Some of us don’t want to live in subdivisions. I myself wouldn’t want to live in a subdivision.”-
Over the years, the tribe’s public water utility has drilled new wells and begun hooking up homes to water mains, but it’s a monumental task; connecting a single home sometimes costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. And so, many people haul their own water, driving up to two hours each way in search of a spigot. Others use livestock troughs, which are more conveniently located, though the water often makes people sick.
Meanwhile, the much-ballyhooed Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project has been slow in coming. Despite the fanfare over the project, which is part of a 2010 settlement between the tribe and the state of New Mexico over the tribe’s 900,000 acre-feet of unclaimed San Juan River water rights, only a small percentage of the water will reach Navajos living out on the reservation.
“I taught my kids to haul wood and water,” Arviso told me as we drove. “But I taught them it’s important to help people, too.” Hauling water is part of everyday life here, but as more young people leave the reservation, getting by — especially for the elderly — has become increasingly hard.
Where the water mains end, Arviso steps in, delivering water to 250 homes in the area around Thoreau. Most days, she can reach only 10 or 12 of them. That means that the 400 gallons of water each household receives — the amount an average American uses in four days — must last a month.
Arviso’s days are still long; she leaves the house at 6:30 for her other job as a school bus driver. On a typical day, she’ll deliver around 3,000 gallons of water, driving up to 75 miles over rough roads. At 3:00, she’s back in the school bus, and by 6:30 she’s home, in time to make -dinner. Usually, it’s a sandwich: pork chop or ham and cheese. Some days, when the roads turn to wet concrete after heavy rains or snow, she can’t make deliveries.
Soon, though, she may get help from a well planned for Smith Lake. DigDeep, the organization behind the project, generally develops water projects in countries like Cameroon and South Sudan, but George McGraw, its founder, has made the Navajo Nation a new priority. Arviso and others may be used to limited water, but McGraw sees it as deprivation. “In the U.S., there are a lot of laws that have governed water use for a long time, and those laws are based on property,” he says. “They’re water rights, not the right to water.”
McGraw is still negotiating the myriad obstacles to drilling a well out here, where contamination from old uranium mines reaches deep into the groundwater. The full cost of the project, which includes installing indoor storage tanks and solar heaters in individual homes, will run almost half a million dollars — more than five times the price DigDeep usually pays for a comparable project.
Two years ago, when McGraw first met with people around Smith Lake, many were skeptical. They’d heard promises before, but a new well never came. “They’ve already tried,” one man said. Arviso chimed in. “I told them, ‘You’re supposed to have faith.’ ”
The Smith Lake well would mean that 5,000 people no longer have to drive as far to get water. Arviso will be able to refill her truck without going all the way back to Thoreau, allowing her to deliver more water to more people.
In the early afternoon, we reached the home of siblings Vivian and Jeff Barbone, who live in a clearing overlooking a forested mesa. In their yard, a patch of dusty earth, a few rusted cars sat under a single gnarled juniper.
Beside the house, four large blue plastic drums stood in a neat row. Arviso uncoiled a long plastic tube from the tank on the back of the truck and inserted it into one of the barrels. “It’s the Yellow Buffalo,” Jeff said, nodding toward the truck. Arviso turned the metal lever, her hands protected from the cold in a pair of neon-green gloves, releasing a stream of water.
Along with water, Arviso often delivers boxes of food or wood to the Barbones, who also care for their mother. She lives in a small, separate house on their property, without electricity or running water, and she uses an old woodstove for heat in the winter. They have one car, which Vivian takes to work. “Sometimes Jeff can’t manage,” Arviso said. “It’s hard to get wood without a car.”
After the buckets were filled, Vivian disappeared into her house. She returned with a plate of freshly roasted piñon nuts. Arviso took a handful, and the two women chewed them carefully, cracking the shells between their teeth to get at the morsel inside.
“I just can’t give water and leave,” Arviso told me later. “I have to ask them if they’re doing okay. Some people don’t have anybody to lean on.”
When I asked about water, Vivian, who’s in her late 50s and has a sprinkling of freckles across her cheekbones, sighed briefly. “We haven’t had running water in over 30 years.”
Leaving the Barbones, we passed the abandoned lot overlooking Smith Lake, where one day soon the new well could be dug. Right now, it’s just a few acres of scratchy-looking grass surrounded by an old wooden fence and a boarded-up house. Until recently, Arviso was the only one in her family with running water. But when her septic tank broke a few months ago, the tribal utility shut her tap off. She doesn’t know when they’ll fix it. In the meantime, she’ll keep driving the Yellow Buffalo.
“People tell me I can’t ever leave my job,” she said as we drove away. A middle-aged man walking along the highway waved at the truck. Arviso waved back and aimed the truck toward home. “They say, ‘We’re depending on you.’ ”