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County stepping in to help To’hajiilee get clean water

Omar Apachito holds a bottle of water from a To’hajiilee home as he and Paris Apachito appear at a news conference to show the water quality in the community. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

For Ida Parker, getting a drink of water is not as simple as turning on the faucet.

Sometimes, it’s a day trip.

The lifelong To’hajiilee resident travels into Albuquerque to buy cases of bottled water at Costco and Sam’s Club. She treks to the city at least once a week to do her laundry, too, because, she says, washing clothes with the water flowing into her house would just make the garments “dingy.”

Travel required for basic needs is such that she already has about 15,000 miles on the 2020 Volkswagen she bought about five months ago.

“A lot of people go maybe three or four times a week (to Albuquerque),” Parker said of her neighbors.

A heavily eroded segment of a pipe and a bottle of contaminated water. To’Hajiilee officials estimate the pipe is 6 to 18 months old. To’Hajiilee has one working well that leaders say is insufficient for the roughly 2,000 residents. (Anthony Jackson/ Albuquerque Journal)

To’hajiilee, a satellite community of the Navajo Nation about 30 miles west of Albuquerque’s Big I interchange, has one working well that leaders say is insufficient for the roughly 2,000 residents. The quality is such that residents rely predominantly on bottled water for drinking and generally use the well’s output – which resembles liquid rust – only for showering and household chores such as washing dishes.

But that is only when there is enough available, and when the well is not entirely out of service. The water is so corrosive that it eats away at the well’s components, forcing major repairs and outages three times in the past five years.

Officials say they have a solution to what they’ve deemed a water crisis, but a major landowner is thwarting their effort.

To’hajiilee, at the western edge of Bernalillo County, wants to build a 7.3-mile transmission line from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s westernmost water tank. The Navajo Nation has water rights to the water that would flow to To’hajiilee, and officials say the water utility has signaled a willingness to work on the project. But it would require procuring easements from three landowners along the line, one of which – Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, or WALH – has refused to entertain negotiations.

“We will pay our own way,” To’hajiilee Chapter President Mark Begay said Wednesday at a news conference in the village. “We’re willing to pay for the land to run the pipeline. We’re not asking for anything for free.”

The stalling has prompted Bernalillo County to intervene. The County Commission recently voted to allow the county to proceed with condemnation if necessary.

County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, who represents To’hajiilee, said the COVID-19 pandemic makes the water situation especially dire, because the virus has disproportionately hit the state’s Native American communities.

Public health officials say regular and proper hand-washing is one of the keys to limiting the spread.

“It’s a serious matter. Let’s get this (project) done,” O’Malley said.

Representatives for WALH did not respond to Journal messages Wednesday, but the owners are no strangers to water battles. WALH’s attempts to develop Santolina into a potentially 90,000-person community southwest of Interstate 40 and 118th Street are in something of a holding pattern as it has had issues securing sufficient water for the project.

Asked if she thinks WALH’s refusal to work with To’hajiilee could be somehow related, O’Malley said, “I think they’re looking for leverage.”

Begay said the well To’hajiilee relies on today has gone out of service three times in the past five years – 2015, 2017 and 2019 – and repairs have cost $46,000 to $79,000 each round. One of the outages extended for two weeks. In such events, the water utility drives tanker trucks into the community.

Given how quickly the water is eating through the well’s pipes, Begay is already bracing for what he says is an almost inevitable breakdown in the next year.

“The only way for us to get clean water, safe water is from Albuquerque through a pipeline,” he said.

The Navajo Nation has over $700 million in federal coronavirus relief money through the CARES Act, and the proposed spending plan includes $8 million to build the transmission line and buy the easements, said Jamie Henio, a delegate who represents To’hajiilee on the Navajo Nation Council.

The appropriation would still require approval by the council and the Navajo Nation president, but Henio said he believes in the future of the project.

“If there’s a will, there’s a way, and there is a big will here,” he said Wednesday.

Officials say that the water utility has said it is willing to work with To’hajiilee and that two of the private landowners along the proposed 7-mile pipeline have agreed to negotiate.

WALH, however, has shown little interest in moving the plan forward since To’hajiilee representatives began reaching out in 2018.

George Mihalik, a project engineer from Souder, Miller & Associates working on the project, said he sent multiple emails in the summer of 2018 to WALH representatives before receiving any response.

Ted Garrett of Garrett Development Corp. ultimately answered on Sept. 27, 2018.

“Thank you for your email requesting an easement for a water line across Western Albuquerque Land Holdings LLC’s … property to the 7W reservoir,” Garrett wrote. “WALH has reviewed your request and is not interested in pursuing discussions for such an easement.”

Mihalik said the line is designed to cause as little impact as possible, running adjacent to an existing power line. The project would run through about two miles of WAHL property, albeit in a 30-foot strip that Mihalik said adds up to approximately 7 total acres of land.

O’Malley said she was surprised when To’hajiilee representatives approached the county to say they had gotten nowhere working with WALH, but that the county’s experience has been similar.

“The county attorney reached out, and WALH knew that we were moving toward the possibility of eminent domain,” she said. “There was a conversation. It was … ‘No, they’re not interested,’ so it was, like, ‘All right. We need to prepare to condemn.'”

To’hajiilee officials say the village’s existing well is unreliable, insufficient for the 2,000 residents and yields such poor-quality water that most in the community rely on bottled water.

Officials held Wednesday’s news conference in front of a truck stocked with donated bottled water that was ultimately distributed to residents who lined up in their cars outside the chapter house in the afternoon.

To’hajiilee resident Rheana Apachito, who helped with the distribution, said the intent was to keep community members from having to travel outside the village to get drinking water.

Kathy Secatero was among those stocking up.

The lifelong To’hajiilee resident said water issues are a fact of life. The water that comes to her house “is not that good” and taps reliably run dry every day.

“It’s out from probably 8 in the morning all the way until 7, even 10, in the evening, so I’m out of water all day,” she said. “I’m lucky that I get water here for drinking.”

Anthony Jackson contributed to this report.

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