Water Contamination in the Navajo Nation Has Plagued Residents for Decades

March 9th 2016

The water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan has put a national spotlight on crumbling water infrastructure systems nationwide. But Flint's problems only begin to scratch the surface of water troubles some minority communities have lived with for decades without celebrity attention, or outpourings of public support in the form of water and money donations.

Across vast swaths of American Southwest, residents of the Navajo Nation have been plagued by water contamination for years; most recently from an accidental Environmental Protection Agency spill at the Gold King mine in Colorado last year, but before that the community suffered from the toxic aftermath of uranium mining that fueled the nuclear arms race in the 1950s.

It's a legacy that has created a tragic reality for many residents of the reservation. Some 54,000 Navajos are thought to collect water from a few thousand unregulated, potentially contaminated sources, according to the EPA. And in more than 10 percent of 240 unregulated sources in remote areas, testing turned up uranium and other radioactive particles in levels exceeding federal drinking-water standards, according to the agency.

"It really is an incredible injustice. If you're born Navajo, you're 67 times more likely not to have a tap or toilet in your house than if you're born black, white, Asian- or Hispanic-American," George McGraw, founder of DIGDEEP, a non profit that provides water systems to underserved communities, told NPR.

Because of limited access to running water on the Navajo Nation reservation, many residents must source water from miles away, or use potentially dangerous sources closer to their homes. In January, a number of news outlets profiled the "water lady," who delivers water to more than 200 remote homes in a large yellow water truck about once a month.

Since 2008, more than $27 million federal dollars have been invested in projects to build up water distribution systems on the reservation, the New York Times reported. It's estimated that those investments will allow about 800 homes to benefit from new pipe systems, as well as improved water quality for about 1,000 homes that already have running water. Until those projects are completed, though — and likely even after that date — many will still rely on the efforts of people like Darlene Arviso the "water lady."

"If I'm not here, who's going to bring these people their water?," she told the Times. "Right now, I'm all they've got."

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