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Federal funds prompt improvements to tribal infrastructure during pandemic

A family uses a newly installed water access point in the Rock Springs Chapter of the Navajo Nation. The federal CARES Act has helped increase access to clean water on the reservation during the pandemic. (Courtesy of Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The pandemic has exposed the inadequate water infrastructure and internet access in New Mexico’s tribal communities. But the public health crisis has also sparked an influx of federal funds and local projects to connect more residents to clean water and the internet.

Improving water access

A year ago, officials began imploring people to stay home and wash their hands frequently to prevent spreading the coronavirus.

That’s a difficult task on the Navajo Nation, where about 30% of homes do not have access to piped water, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

The rapid spread of the virus has added urgency to existing water projects, said Emma Robbins, director of the DigDeep Navajo Water Project.

“We’ve been able to expand into new communities and pave the way for longer-term projects rather than only emergency relief work,” Robbins said. “A silver lining of COVID is that so many of these complex processes that usually have so much red tape have been expedited.”

The organization has installed more than 700 water storage tanks in Navajo homes since June, and continues to truck water to remote homes and install handwashing stations near chapter houses.

Emma Robbins, DigDeep’s Navajo Water Project director, prepares wooden bases that will support water storage tanks for Navajo homes without running water. (Courtesy of DigDeep)

“We’re also piloting a program where we help Navajo families get homesite leases,” Robbins said. “It’s a really important document that can help families who are living so close to water lines get piped water in their homes.”

DigDeep is part of the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Water Access Coordination Group, a partnership of 20 organizations led by the Indian Health Service.

The group is using $5.2 million from the CARES Act to install 59 free water access points across Navajo chapters, and provide millions of water disinfection tablets.

The funds are also helping supply 37,000 water storage containers to Navajo homes.

Rex Kontz, deputy general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said the projects are a valuable use of the federal aid.

“It just made it much easier to cope and deal with the restrictions, the need to shelter in home, minimize movement, and increase sanitation,” Kontz said. “Obviously water is a very important component of that.”

IHS estimates that the initiative has decreased the average round-trip distance to access clean water in the Navajo chapters from 52 miles to 17 miles.

NTUA has drawn on an additional $130 million from the CARES Act for new water cisterns, septic tanks and well repairs.

An $8 million pipeline to connect the Navajo community of To’hajiilee to Albuquerque’s water supply could be in the near future, thanks to the CARES Act and a New Mexico Water Trust Fund appropriation.

Digital divide

A stark lack of reliable internet and electricity has become more apparent as New Mexico’s Indigenous students continue to attend school remotely.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimates that 46.6% of households on tribal lands have basic broadband access, compared to 92% of nontribal households.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for broadband connectivity to meet the needs of our students, teachers, first responders and elders,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

In October, the FCC granted 15 New Mexico tribes and pueblos broadband spectrum licenses as part of the Rural Tribal Priority Window program. The FCC had provided some pueblos, like Zuni, temporary use of an unassigned broadband spectrum early on in the pandemic due to increased demand.

And last week, the FCC announced the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which includes discounts for computers, tablets and broadband service for low-income tribal households.

A Navajo Tribal Utility Authority employee repairs a power line as part of a Navajo Nation electricity project funded by the CARES Act. (Courtesy of Navajo Tribal Utility Authority)

The Navajo Nation was recently awarded $53 million through the FCC’s E-Rate Program. The money will help install 600 miles of fiber optic lines to improve internet at 90 chapter houses and 53 Head Start facilities.

New Mexico Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the funding will help get Navajo children “the connectivity they need for the modern education they deserve.”

“These are our kids — New Mexico kids — and we have an obligation to meet their educational needs whether they go to public schools, tribal schools or Bureau of Indian Education schools,” Stewart said.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has used CARES Act money for 139 broadband installations, 43 wifi hotspots, and four new broadband and cellphone towers.

“Our Indigenous communities are definitely more in the spotlight right now,” Robbins said. “More people are learning of the inequities that exist here. Hopefully that attention will mean more progress, even once we’re past a global pandemic.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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