Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
WHITEHORSE LAKE – Chee Smith Jr. may have hauled his last water.
Outside his trim yellow home near the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation, a line of blue stakes marks the path of a water pipe leading to a spigot that now pokes through the dry dirt behind his house.
Smith flipped the handle to demonstrate the water’s flow, but turned it off quickly. Water here, even when it comes in a pipe rather than being hauled in the bed of a pickup, is not a thing to waste. “Water is gold out here,” Smith explained. “It’s our life.”
Inside the house, a sink and toilet await the final hookup that will bring a clean water supply and indoor plumbing to what might be one of the most water-starved regions in the United States.
Every home in this sparse community at the foot of Tse’ Yi’ Gai – White Mesa – has an outhouse, a basketball hoop, and the water tanks, barrels and buckets that accompany a life without running water.
The buckets are for the relatively short drive to the Whitehorse Lake chapter house, where they’re filled with safely drinkable water. For a dollar, community members can take a shower there, too. It’s a longer drive to one of the windmill-fed stock tanks to fill the 50-gallon barrels Smith uses to haul water for his family’s six goats and the two trees outside the house. “We haul it daily,” Smith said.
The network of blue stakes leading outward from the big new water tank at the foot of the mesa is a signal of change. In November 2012, 24 Whitehorse Lake homes were connected to the newly arriving water lines. Last month, the home Smith shares with his 87-year-old father, Chee Smith Sr., was among the next 21 homes to be connected, with the final plumbing now underway to connect the indoor plumbing to the water lines and newly dug septic systems carved into the hard desert earth behind each house.
“Once they hook up, they don’t have to haul any more,” the younger Smith said.
Smith, the 51-year-old president of the Navajo Nation’s Whitehorse Chapter (something like a mayor, Smith explained) left the community as a young man, earning an engineering degree from Brigham Young University and working in Tucson for eight years after college before returning. “I came back to help my community,” he said.
Lack of indoor plumbing and the need to haul water by pickup truck are common on the Navajo Reservation. But even by Navajo standards, Whitehorse Lake and the other communities along the nation’s eastern fringe are dry. The area averages less than 9 inches of precipitation a year. Groundwater, the normal fallback for desert communities, is of poor quality, when it can be found at all, said Andrew Robertson, an engineer with Souder, Miller and Associates in Albuquerque.
But that is slowly changing. Whitehorse Lake – an hour’s drive north of Grants, two hours south of Farmington – is at the southwestern end of a growing spiderweb of water pipes passing through what Robertson called “the most water-starved” communities on the Navajo Nation.
The 13-mile Phase 4 of the Eastern Navajo Water Pipeline Project brings water south from Pueblo Pintado to Whitehorse Lake. For now, the $3 million extension connects to a modest groundwater supply system at Ojo Encino, a Navajo community near Cuba. Eventually, plans call for an expanded network of pipes to connect to the north Cutter Reservoir and a more permanently reliable supply of water from the San Juan River via the $73 million Cutter Lateral project.
The Cutter Lateral, in turn, is part of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, intended to bring water to some 100,000 people across the Navajo Nation in western New Mexico who currently lack access to a clean and reliable water supply.
Whitehorse Lake got its name for white horses that used to run the arid landscape and a pool that used to build after storms behind a hand-built earthen dam. All but the name – and 700 people tied by generations to the land – are gone now. “People like it out here,” Smith said. “They stay out here.”
But water, or its lack, has always been a central feature of life here. Of the area’s 700 residents, 550 had no running water to their homes before the water pipeline project began. Smith remembers hunting firewood in the canyons to the north and having his father teach him where to dig a foot or two into the sandy soil to find pools of shallow groundwater. “It’s real clear,” he said. “You can drink it.”
“That’s how people survive out here,” Smith said. “They know where all the water holes are.”
During the winter, family members would pack big bowls full of snow and bring them home, setting them by the fire to melt. “For generations, the people have melted the snow,” he said. Before pickups were common, water haulers used horse-drawn wagons, something common as recent as Smith’s childhood in the 1960s. “That was almost like a full-day job,” he said.
The public health implications for the communities that lack running water are enormous, Robertson pointed out. A 2007 federal study, noting that a wide variety of diseases are common without access to clean water, put the health care savings of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project at $435 million over 20 years. “There is a clear connection between sanitation facilities (water and sewerage) and Indian health,” the study concluded.
With the expansion of the water system, Whitehorse Lake is seeing young families move back to the community who had left to live in surrounding cities, Smith said. And he sees economic opportunities.
As he drove east from the chapter house toward his home, Smith pointed to a broken-down building that until 1985 was home to a community store. Nearby, the community has set aside a parcel to build a new one. Before the water project, replacing the store and other steps forward in Whitehorse Lake’s economic development were hard to carry out. Another possibility is building a restaurant for drivers passing through on N.M. 509, the highway up from Grants. But that would require something most restaurant owners take for granted – a reliable water supply.
“Due to no water,” Smith explained. “That’s why we have no development in the community.”