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Unbound by red tape, nonprofit delivering running water and electricity to Navajo homes

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Posted at 1:38 PM, Jan 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-14 16:38:13-05

SHONTO, Arizona — Connected by endless stretches of dirt roads, the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States. It covers over 27,000 square miles and extends into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

With nearly 200,000 tribal citizens, homes are spread out over remote, rural area, with many lacking necessities often taken for granted in America.

"Lack of transportation, housing development, electricity – some of the basic needs we definitely lack," said Shanna Yazzie, a project manager for the Navajo Water Project.

Yazzie says growing up without running water at home was normal.

"I think that's where my mindset of always having a plan A, B and C came from. Thinking at least three steps ahead in case a watering point is frozen, ran out of water or is closed," said Yazzie. "And when I say a watering point, we had to travel more than 15, 20 miles to a watering point to get water."

Left out of historic federal investments, infrastructure disparities have long stunted the reservation's economic opportunity and quality of life.

Navajo citizens are among more than two million Americans living without running water and basic indoor plumbing.

"Race is the strongest predictor of whether or not you and your family can just turn on the tap and get water," said George McGraw, founder, and CEO of DigDeep.

The human rights nonprofit organization is dedicated to ensuring every American has access to clean, running water.

"If you're indigenous, you're 19 times more likely not to have running water than a white family. If you're Black or Latino, you're twice as likely," said McGraw. "And that's because the way we've invested in these communities and in these systems has, you know, had a racial component from the very beginning. And certain communities were deliberately left out."

DigDeep partnered with the Navajo people to bring running water and solar power to families on the reservation. McGraw says 30% of homes lack these basic needs.

The indigenous-led Navajo Water Project has provided 300 homes with solar power and underground water systems. Drivers deliver clean water to remote homes each month.

"We make things happen quickly," said Yazzie." We don't have any red tapes, except just getting permission from the homeowners and the community, the local chapter officials."

They prioritize helping elders, veterans, people without transportation, homes with children, and tribal citizens with disabilities and chronic
health conditions.

"Often, when they see us or our water trucks, they will run to the road and try to stop one of our technicians because they need physical help," said Yazzie. "We're kind of like the adopted grandkids for them."

Yazzie says 40% of the team doesn't have running water at home.

"But when you have a way to put a cistern underground, install a water pump, install solar in case you don't have electricity – anything is possible," said Yazzie.

With the newly signed infrastructure bill, that sentiment is closer to reality now than ever before. Billions of dollars are going directly to tribes and reservations to address projects that have gone unfunded for decades.

The historic investment promises to address the decades-long backlog of unfunded infrastructure projects.

"It's hundreds and thousands of projects, all shovel-ready. Some are very big, think water treatment plants and miles and miles of pipe. Some are very small, like a bathroom facility at a public building," said McGraw.

Funding to the Indian Health Service is supposed to be distributed over five years.

"We're going to be watching that process really closely, assisting where we can, representing communities, and making sure their voices are heard."