As many states prepare to reopen, COVID-19 has just begun to exert its grip on To’hajiilee, a Navajo community of 2,000 people about 20 miles west of Albuquerque. As the To’hajiilee chapter president, I fear that our ongoing water crisis – which could be largely solved by the construction of some basic infrastructure – will severely hamper our efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
Our entire community relies on a single well with a history of unreliable service. Five other wells have failed altogether and cannot be recommissioned. During the best of times, our one usable well produces inadequate supplies to meet the needs of homes, businesses, schools and our health clinic. What little water the well does produce stains clothes, corrodes pipes and smells like rotten eggs. When the corrosive groundwater causes the well pump to fail, our families are forced to haul water in their cars from Albuquerque for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing their hands.
The COVID-19 pandemic shines a spotlight on the vital importance of access to clean water in To’hajiilee. Whether for hand-washing or sanitation or medical procedures, a reliable water supply is critical in ensuring the safety of this extremely vulnerable community. Our population includes a large percentage of elders and people with underlying medical problems such as diabetes, and large extended families here often live together under one roof. These factors, along with the need to travel to obtain water – some families have no running water at all in their homes – combine to make To’hajiilee a potential tinderbox of contagion. And in a worst-case scenario, our health care center would have to close due to a lack of water just when its services are most needed.
Unfortunately, To’hajiilee is by no means unique; many other Native American communities in New Mexico face similar water crises, made all the worse by COVID-19.
For now, To’hajiilee is making do with its single inadequate well, which we’re supplementing with trucked deliveries from the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. In the past, when the well has stopped working outright, the water authority and the New Mexico National Guard have responded to emergency declarations by sending tankers and bottled water. We are very grateful for this assistance, but it is worrisome that people have to congregate at a central location to get clean drinking water during a pandemic.
Among the options we’ve considered is the drilling of new, more reliable wells. But groundwater quality and availability has proven too poor to allow this. Another possibility, deemed by engineers to be the only viable solution, is to pipe water in from elsewhere.
Fortunately, the Navajo Nation has water that it can convey to To’hajiilee without infringing on supplies that others must rely upon. It’s just a matter of building 7.4 miles of pipeline from Albuquerque. The water authority stands willing to treat the water, at the Navajo Nation’s expense, to meet federal safety standards before it goes into the pipe. There will be no expense to the water authority, Bernalillo County or the city of Albuquerque.
I urge all concerned parties to work together to make the pipeline solution happen. To’hajiilee is home to many veterans who risked their lives for our country. We ask for the help of our neighbors in protecting the lives of our families here at home by providing the most basic of human needs: clean water.