How far will CARES Act money go in solving the Navajo Nation water crisis? | KOB 4

How far will CARES Act money go in solving the Navajo Nation water crisis?

How far will CARES Act money go in solving the Navajo Nation water crisis?

Nathan O'Neal
Updated: September 22, 2020 10:09 PM
Created: September 22, 2020 08:09 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - On a hilltop in Red Rock, New Mexico, 82-year-old Lee Wilson sits on a weather-worn couch outside his stone-block home.  He’s lived there quite a long time – since 1946.

His family friend Charlie Bowie looks after him. Bowie wears a black mask to protect the elder during the wake of the pandemic. They both rely on water deliveries to survive.

“He was supposed to have running water a long time ago now,” said Bowie.

They ration their water supply in two metal barrels, which they hope will last them a month.

Inside Bowie’s home, an array of cloth masks hang from a rusty nail. A metal bucket sits on top of a wood stove where he routinely heats up water –so he can wash his hands.

On the Navajo Nation, an estimated 30 percent of homes do not have access to running water, which complicates the fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


At a warehouse in Gallup, New Mexico, a team of volunteers is racing to help those without running water. On an early Wednesday morning, they methodically unload 275-gallon tanks which are bound for Navajo families.

Manning the forklift is Zoel Zohnnie, who founded “Water Warriors United” when COVID-19 first hit the Navajo people.

“Health is the first and foremost reason. People can't wash their hands without water. Everybody's being told to wash your hands to stay clean, stay sanitary... and you know if you don't have water you can't do any of that,” said Zohnnie.

The Navajo Nation is sprawling. It’s roughly the size of West Virginia and for some people that means driving as much as two hours to get water.

Many people on the Navajo Nation have been forced to rely on others – like the Water Warriors. They haul tanks of water every day to the far reaches of the reservation to families who need it.

“It’s hard. It’s really hard without running water,” said Brandon Brown, 32, who lives on his family’s land.

“After I lost both my parents, I started raising my siblings... two boys and a little girl,” said Brown. He hauls water every few days from Gallup but sometimes the dirt roads become impassable.

“These roads get really bad in the winter when it rains,” said Brown.

Others have had to learn to adjust during the pandemic, including Michelle Jefferson who built a makeshift hand-washing station which sits outside her home.

“To my family and my kids, it’s really important to wash your hands to try to keep this place clean,” said Jefferson. She recently moved to the Navajo Nation from Albuquerque to care for her in-laws.

“They’re elderly so they can’t go into town… and I’m scared for myself because I have kids here,” said Jefferson.


The Navajo tribal government has earmarked $130 million in federal CARES Act funding specifically for water projects. However, there are limitations.

“We’re not going to be able to help everybody,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Between federal government red tape and the December 30th deadline set by the federal government to spend the CARES Act money, President Nez concedes the much-needed water projects likely won’t reach those who need it most.

“We would love to have major projects that would extend a waterline to other communities and get more people water,” said Nez. “But because of the deadline, we’re just going to have to include those that live with a short distance from a major waterline.”

That’s one reason why Zohnnie and his Water Warriors team are expanding their operations. They’ll soon deliver massive water tanks to elders throughout the Navajo Nation to help them get through the winter and weather the pandemic.

“To say that we are living in third-world conditions in America is true in a lot of senses but it’s definitely something that can be fixed,” said Zohnnie. “So all we can do right now is hope for the best.”

Nathan O'Neal is a National Health Journalism Fellow. This story was made possible via partnership with the University of Southern California - Annenberg's Center for Health Journalism.  

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