THOREAU – Digging an 8-foot hole in solid rock is no easy job, even with a backhoe and a jackhammer.
A crew spent two days last month digging outside the home of Rena James to install a 1,200-gallon cistern, together with an electric pump, that will allow the 84-year-old Navajo woman to turn on a tap in her kitchen.
For now, she still doesn’t have a shower or an indoor toilet. But a kitchen sink marks the first time in her life that Rena James has had running water in her adobe-walled home, said her son, Freddy James.
The cistern will also provide clean, safe water to other members of her extended family who live nearby in a cluster of houses and hogans in rural Prewitt, about 20 miles northwest of Grants.
“This is going to make a big difference,” said Freddy James, 60.
For several years, the family has received water deliveries by truck, which they stored outside in barrels that accumulated blowing dust and dirt, and froze in the coldest months. Water in the buried cistern is expected to remain clean fluid year-round.
“We won’t have to haul water from outside where it freezes in the winter,” Freddy James said. “We’ve got to chip the water out of the barrel.”
The James family is the 16th Thoreau-area household to receive a new cistern funded by Dig Deep, a California-based nonprofit in cooperation with the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School, a Thoreau-based nonprofit.
Dig Deep’s goal is to install 200 cistern systems by late 2018 at a cost of about $4,000 per household, said George McGraw, executive director of the nonprofit. Cistern installations will comprise a big part of the nonprofit’s $2.2 million investment in Thoreau-area water projects, all funded by private donations, he said.
Sonny Sanders, 49, of Thoreau was among those who helped install the James’ cistern. Like many of his co-workers, the Navajo man said he gets satisfaction from helping his neighbors get running water in their homes.
“It really does change their lives – that’s what really gets me,” the St. Bonaventure employee said. Now, Rena James can get water from a tap “instead of having to go outside on a cold, windy day to get water out of a barrel.”
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, provides electricity, water, natural gas and wastewater treatment to residents throughout the 27,000-square-mile reservation. The utility has 36,000 water customers, according to its website.
NTUA is expanding nodes off its water mains to service homes, McGraw said, but the rocky ground in many areas has made expansion slow, difficult and expensive.
Freddy James said his mother’s home lies less than half a mile from a water main, but the rocky ground has frustrated efforts to extend a water line to the house.
The big, plastic cisterns also mean changes for Darlene Arviso, widely known here as “the water lady” because she drives the truck that delivers water throughout the Thoreau area.
Arviso fills up a 4,000-gallon water truck each morning at a well owned by St. Bonaventure and travels some 300 miles a week over pitted, unpaved roads, delivering water to up to 250 scattered Navajo households.
In the past, Arviso delivered about 250 gallons at a time to the James’ household, filling 55-gallon plastic barrels, buckets and virtually any other container that held water.
“That wouldn’t last the month,” Arviso said, which required her to make multiple trips to the household each month.
As cisterns become more common around Thoreau, household water supplies should last longer, limiting the number of trips Arviso must make to each location.
“They should have plenty of water to last the whole month,” she said.
About half of water deliveries are made to homes that lack electricity, McGraw estimates. That presents a major hurdle because cisterns require an electric pump to deliver water into the home.
Lindsay Johnson, 79, has had running water since September when a cistern was installed at her home east of Smith Lake. But without an electrical connection, she must use a gasoline-powered generator to heat water for showers, which requires Johnson and her family to buy pricey fuel.
Typically, the family runs the generator only for showers and relies on a wood-burning stove to heat water for other purposes, such as washing dishes.
To overcome that problem, Dig Deep is funding a pilot program that uses solar panels to power the water pumps.
Kirk Yazzie, his wife and three children, ages 2 to 9, live in a one-room house in Thoreau that uses a solar-powered water pump that draws water from a cistern to a tap inside their home.
Before the demonstration project started two months ago, Yazzie said he hauled water from St. Bonaventure’s well across town.
“I used to haul water in a car with five-gallon pickle buckets,” Yazzie said. The indoor tap, he said, “is a lot better than the buckets.”
When the demonstration project concludes later this year, solar-powered pumps will be installed routinely with cisterns at all homes that lack electricity, McGraw said.
The water-delivery program here is on the verge of a major expansion. Dig Deep plans to begin drilling an 1,800-foot well near Smith Lake about 10 miles north of Thoreau that should begin producing early next year.
The $1.2 million well is expected to produce a fourfold increase in water deliveries, from about 3,500 gallons a week today to as much as 16,000 gallons, McGraw said. That will allow Dig Deep to serve up to 90 additional households in the Smith Lake area, he said.
Fortunately, Arviso will have some help. Dig Deep recently refurbished a donated water truck and St. Bonaventure hired a second driver.
Smith Lake homeowners are in dire need of truck deliveries of water. Many area residents routinely drive into Thoreau to fill buckets and barrels from the St. Bonaventure well.
Raymond Warner, 64, said he drives about 10 miles twice a week from his home in Smith Lake to fill two barrels because shallow wells there are contaminated.
“You can’t drink it,” Warner said recently while tanking up at the St. Bonaventure Mission. “You can’t even do laundry with it – it eats your clothes. It stinks, too.”