Utilities Across the U.S. Help Connect Navajo Nation Residents Without Electricity

NAVAJO NATION – Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.

“We’ve been living off of those propane lanterns,” Billie said. “Now we don’t have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight, so when they get up in the middle of the night like to use the restroom, they have a flashlight to go to [the outhouse].”

Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon.

They watched two men in a cherry picker hook up the last wire to their home. Billie said they’ve gone through too many generators to count.

“My two boys they have really bad allergies, and they have asthma, so sometimes they need the nebulizer, so we usually go to my mom’s house travel in the middle of the night over there back and forth,” Billie said.

The Billies are not alone. About one in 10 Navajos live without electricity. And as many as 40 percent of the tribe have to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, water and the internet.

Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay, who is Navajo, said the numbers are probably even higher. Begay said electricity provides more than just light. With electricity, a family can pump water, charge their phone, store food, even get and maintain a job.

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“Electricity itself provides a tremendous amount of convenience and having access to the world at large,” Begay said. “You can just imagine if you were to fill out an application for a job, you do it online and you send it in. Or you’re Googling for information, if you don’t have electricity, you’re in trouble.”

Begay said he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.

“You could tell they were high school students,” Begay said. “And so they were doing their homework outside this hotel in the parking lot. They had the light on in their cars and doing their homework. It became quite clear that they didn’t have internet.”

Outside the Billies’ home, the couple waited patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from P&M Electric had an update.

“We’ll get a meter going and you should have electricity,” Cooper said. “Can’t wait to see the real smile here in a minute. Don’t cover it up I want to see it. That’s what joy looks like.”

Cooper traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to install electricity. The utility also donated a refrigerator to the Billies.

Brian Cooper, who traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with P&M Electric, just told the Billies they’re bringing a refrigerator to their house. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

P&M along with several other crews from around the country have volunteered their time to connect people to the power grid.

On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out it costs on average $40,000 dollars to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed. So you can’t raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the country to help.

“I had no idea that there were people still in 2019 without power,” Cooper said.

Finally after waiting for so many years, the Billies watched the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then ran inside to flip the switch.

“It’s so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it,” Billie said. “My kids are going to be so happy they keep asking everyday … They go, ‘mom we’re going to have light. We’re going to finally have light!'”

Now the family will wait and pray for running water and internet.

Tribes’ Role in Drought Contingency Plan Marks Turning Point for Inclusion

SACATON – Sprouting through the cracked floor of the Sonoran Desert, tepary beans thrive in the dry heat and carry with it centuries of resilience from the indigenous Pima people of southern Arizona.

“We have our water. It’s our life. It’s our livelihood, and it’s our culture,” said Ramona Button, owner of Ramona Farms.

Ramona Button and her husband, Terry, have been farming traditional native foods on the Gila River Indian Community for more than 40 years, including the tepary bean, a staple of native dishes for centuries.

“And we’re experts in dealing with drought,” Terry Button said.

With more than 4,000 acres under cultivation, the Buttons have had to draw their nearly 20,000 acre feet of water needed every year from a variety of sources. They get water from the San Carlos Irrigation Project, ground wells and the Colorado River hundreds of miles away.

“Commingle all these water resources to ensure us to have enough water to keep this agricultural industry thriving here,” Terry Button said.

From crop selection to leveling the fields, Terry Button says the first line of defense against drought starts by conserving water on the farm. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

But after nearly two decades of drought in Arizona and waning water levels in the Colorado River Basin, the seven states that make up the basin, including Arizona, California and Nevada, have had to negotiate potential cuts to the water to make sure there’s enough water in Lake Powell, which straddles the Utah-Arizona line, and in Lake Mead, to supply water throughout the Southwest.

The Drought Contingency Plan, also known as the DCP, is a multistate agreement that includes Arizona. The plan aims to keep water levels in those reservoirs above critical lows, and should reservoirs dip below certain levels, state including Arizona will have to cut back on the amount each takes from the Colorado River system.

After months of negotiations on the state level, Sen. Martha McSally, a Republican, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, introduced DCP legislation in the House and Senate, which Congress sent to President Trump to sign last week. Trump signed the Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act on April 16, 2019.

“This is about the livelihood and the safety of 40 million Americans,” McSally said on the Senate floor. “The Colorado River DCP Authorization Act puts sound water policy over partisan politics.”

However, before even getting to Capitol Hill, Arizona’s tribes played a critical role in the negotiation of the DCP.

“Without the community’s participation, we don’t see how the DCP can be done,” Stephen Roe Lewis, Gila River Indian Community governor, said in March before Arizona had agreed to the plan.

“We call ourselves the people of the river, O’otham. We have that generational knowledge that goes back centuries if not a millennium,” Lewis said.

Like the resilient tepary bean they harvest, the Button’s have learned to adapt, despite water challenges in the past. (Photo by Oskar Agredano/Cronkite News)

If cuts are made due to drought, the Gila River Indian Community would keep a portion of their water in Lake Mead for compensation. But other tribes are contributing to the drought plan.

Chairman Dennis Patch of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, CRIT, said the community plans to provide 50,000 acre-feet of water every year from 2020 through 2022.

“The benefit for us is that we would be getting some income off it,” Patch said. “The benefit for Arizona and its users is that it would get more water.”

Water is power, and in the Colorado River Basin, tribes hold a significant amount of water claims.

Ten tribes, including the Colorado River Indian Tribes, have rights to more than 2.8 million acre-feet of water yearly from the Colorado River, according to the Tribal Water Study by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Native American communities in the basin.

But only half of that water is currently being used, the study said.

-Video by Lillian Donahue/Cronkite News

Daryl Vigil, water administrator at Jicarilla Apache Nation, who worked on the study, said it’s relatively new for local and federal lawmakers to include tribes in national water policy conversations.

“That conversation and that opportunity wasn’t available before,” Vigil said. “But now with the conclusion of this DCP and the inclusion of tribes in that dialogue, I think that sets the stage for that to happen.”

Despite facing drought, the Buttons at Ramona Farms said they are more optimistic now than decades before when water was diverted away from the Gila River Indian Community as the population grew outside the reservation.

“The hardest part was when the water was diverted to other areas up east of us. That was a part of what we called our drought also,” Ramona Button said.

The Gila River Indian Community regained its water claims in a 2004 settlement.

As the Buttons walk through their barley fields, they know none of it could be possible without the work of those who came before them, and the water that gives the desert around them life.

“Right now, we’re enjoying the opportunity and the responsibility to maintain this tradition,” Terry Button said. “To utilize the resources of the communities agricultural land, it’s water, and the people.”

Gila River Indian Community Celebrates Historic Groundwater Project

GILA RIVER INDIAN COMMUNITY – The Gila River Indian Community unveiled a new groundwater infrastructure project on Friday. The tribe hopes it will provide for members when surface water becomes more scarce.

The “Managed Aquifer Recharge” project, one of at least two planned for the reservation, has a canal system and an open basin where water will seep down into the aquifer. Water then pumped from the aquifer will irrigate crops.

The basin also supports a riparian habitat in the Gila River pathway. The birds and plants are coming back after upstream users diverted the tribe’s water after the Civil War.

Tribal member Kandi Howard said it’s nice to not have to leave the reservation to enjoy nature like this. “And to [have our] water rights back,” she said, referring to the historic 2004 Arizona Water Settlement.

Of the riparian area, she said, “it’s coming along. And I didn’t think our kids would be able to see it, but they are. Like, gradually.”

Gina Enos is a farmer in Sacaton, Ariz. “It means a lot to us,” she said of the MAR-5 project. (Photo by Bret Jaspers / KJZZ)

The governor of the Gila River Indian Community, Stephen Roe Lewis, said the pace of building increased once Drought Contingency Plan talks started in 2016.

“It became clear that drought was a reality for all of us,” he told a crowd of Community members, water leaders and politicians. “And that the community needed to accelerate its reduction of CAP water deliveries and increase its reliance on groundwater supplies.”

The tribe said the project allows it to take less Central Arizona Project (CAP) water and make agreements to help prop up Lake Mead.

The GRIC played an important role in Arizona’s intrastate agreement that helped the state get on board with a Colorado River basin-wide DCP plan. It also signed a separate agreement with the groundwater replenishment arm of the Central Arizona Project, providing more water for development in Central Arizona.

A canal on the Gila River Indian Community. (Photo by Bret Jaspers / KJZZ)

Permanent Ban on Uranium Mining near Grand Canyon Draws Mixed Reaction

GRAND CANYON – Rep. Raúl Grijalva’s bill enacting a permanent ban on uranium mining drew praise this week from Havasupai leaders and criticism from the mining industry, as well as from a Republican member of Arizona’s congressional delegation.

“Havasupai means people of the blue green water, and we have been living here for over thousands of years,” Havasupai Tribal Council Member Claudius Putesoy said.

Hundreds of Havasupai live at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. They want to protect the future of their tribe and the sacred water.

Havasupai Tribal Council Member Claudius Putesoy says contaminated water affects his day to day life. “I’m a rancher and I hike a lot of cattle up here and it affects most of the water down there in Supai.” (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Matthew Putesoy, the vice chairman of the Havasupai Tribe said native communities in northern Arizona have expressed their concerns for decades over uranium mining near their ancestral lands.

“We have a sacred duty to protect the land and the Grand Canyon from further desecration,” he said.

Grijalva, the Democratic chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act on Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park. The legislation would bar more than 1 million acres of land around the canyon from uranium mining.

The Arizona Mining Association was quick to condemn the bill, arguing that the call for a permanent ban is misleading and undermines the domestic supply of clean fuel sources.

“This is a disingenuous attack on the public’s desire for clean energy, a healthy economy without reliance on questionable imports of these critical materials, environmental stewardship and land use autonomy,” Steve Trussell, the association’s executive director, said in a statement sent to Cronkite News.

Uranium is one of 35 mineral commodities deemed critical to the security and economic prosperity of the United States, according to the Department of the Interior. Uranium is abundant in and around the canyon.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat, spoke about challenges he expects to face with his proposed ban on uranium mining. “The mining industry is not going to go quietly in the night,” Grijalva said. “I think the majesty of the Grand Canyon can overwhelm that and that’s why we’re confident.” (Photo by Lillian Donahue / Cronkite News)

Currently, a moratorium set by the Obama administration in 2012 prohibits new mining claims in the area till 2032, but Grijalva said he wants to make that ban permanent.

“When you deal with this issue purely in academic terms and say, ‘Well, it’s just a little bit of mining, it’s just a little bit of uranium mining, what can that affect?’” Grijalva said. “Well, we have a litany , a history of that affect and it’s been negative”

The history of uranium mining in the area has left a mixed legacy. Multiple inactive mines line Grand Canyon National Park. The government has investigated high radiation levels and cleaned up contamination from the century-old Orphan Mine, which is near Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.

The Canyon Mine, 6 miles south of the rim, which is still considered active, was exempt from the 2012 moratorium. The mine’s parent company, Energy Fuels, had to remove more than 1 million gallons of contaminated water from the mine site when it flooded in 2017.

The Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit environmental group, argues that tourism is more valuable to the local economy than mineral extraction.

“Uranium mining threatens these economic drivers while possessing little capacity to support the regional economy,” it said in a recent report.

“Facts are that the risks associated with uranium mining dramatically outweigh the benefits to this region or to this nation,” said Ethan Aumack, the trust’s executive director.

– Video by Lillian Donahue

The National Park Service reported that the more than 6 million visitors to the Grand Canyon National Park in 2017 supported 9,423 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of $938 million to the local economy.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., released a statement opposing the bill.

“Rep. Grijalva is pursuing his misguided quest to permanently lockup more than a million acres in Northern Arizona, harm education, kill jobs, infringe on private property rights and undermine American energy security,” Gosar said.

During his visit to the Grand Canyon on Saturday, Grijalva said he expects pushback on the initiative, but he has a message for his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

“To think of the Grand Canyon not in terms of a piece of federal land that they should open up as a commodity for drilling, for mining or for extraction,” Grijalva said. “They should think of it as a treasure that they need to comfort and take care of.”

‘Living off the Land’ in Turmoil: Tribal Leaders Testify on Climate Change Impact

WASHINGTON – Clayton Honyumptewa says the Powamuya ceremony will be observed this weekend as usual on parts of the Hopi reservation, but the planting that traditionally follows the ceremony might not come until May.

The delay is just another example of the effects of climate change that have left dams dry, water scarce – and pushed planting from March to April and then to May, leaving little time for crops to grow.

“Sometimes they don’t even mature because it already gets cold in September,” said Honyumptewa, director for the Hopi Department of Natural Resources. “It’s been really rough on the farmers.”

It’s been really tough on tribes across the country, officials told a House panel looking at the effects of climate change on Native America. Honyumptewa was not there, but stories like his were repeated in testimony Tuesday by tribal leaders from Alaska, Washington and Arizona.

Video report by Micah Bledsoe/Cronkite News

An Inupiaq witness testified that melting glaciers are leading to erosion that threatens rural villages on the Bering Strait, and a representative of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington said the tribe’s treaty-protected fishing has dried up, while rising seas endanger nearby communities.

Tohono O’odham Nation Vice Chairman Verlon Jose told the House Natural Resources subcommittee climate change has affected everything from farming and livestock to housing and infrastructure.

“We have been able to live off the land, with the land, and with the environmental conditions that it has,” Jose said. But the decades-long drought in Arizona has brought extreme heat and reduced groundwater and surface water needed by crops and livestock.

“As climate change has begun to disrupt both our traditional and modern ways of living, we have had to figure out ways to cope with these changes,” Jose said in his testimony.

The testimony came a day after the president of the National Congress for American Indians urged lawmakers in his annual State of Indian Nations address to take steps toward reversing climate change.

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“The science is settled. The evidence? Undeniable. Our world is gravely ill, human beings are the cause, and only we can administer the cure,” said Jefferson Keel, the president. “Climate change threatens our wellbeing, places, and ways of life in every conceivable way.”

Honyumptewa said he sees it among Hopi ranchers, who cannot afford to properly feed and water their livestock because of scarce resources on the reservation. As a result, livestock and crops have both diminished.

“Some people wholly rely on that. I mean, that’s their livelihood, (their) income for a year,” Honyumptewa said.

Jose said climate change has blunted the tribes’ efforts to get members to return to a healthier, traditional diet as those foods have been “drastically impacted by significant changes in the average temperature that alters the phenology, or the seasonal life cycle, of traditional plants.”

“Our members go out to gather traditional foods and find that many are blooming out of season or not blooming at all as a result of climate change,” he said.

At the hearing, witnesses asked Congress for a seat at the table as the government grapples with climate change, and insisted indigenous experience and expertise should be part of any solutions atimed at reversing it effects.

“We as a community can use best practices, going back to our traditional ways as well as bridging the modern social lifestyles to address climate change,” Jose said.

And while some areas of the Hopi tribe are preparing for the Powamuya ceremony to inspire a successful growing season, Honyumptewa said the drought has made it harder to keep cultural norms alive.

“We need rain, we need water to do that. Rain, snow, all our ceremonies are geared to that,” he said.

“Hopi prophecy is all coming true. Climate change, the California wildfires, they were all predicted by Hopi elders telling us this is what’s going to happen,” Honyumptewa said. “It’s Koyaanisqatsi – a crazy world.”