Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

On average, Navajo Tribal residents use seven gallons a day to drink, cook, bathe and clean with. According to the nonprofit navajowaterproject.org, Navajo people are 67 times more likely than other Americans to live without running water or a toilet. The average person in the U.S., in contrast, uses about 100 gallons a day. 

In agreements signed by tribes with the federal government, the Navajo Nation gave up their land in exchange for funding of things like housing, infrastructure and health care. But for decades that hasn’t happened. Indian Health Services estimates it will cost over $700M to provide access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation to all Navajo homes. 

The Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, started in 2009 and operated by the Bureau of Reclamation, has awarded a $76.1 million contract to S.J. Louis Construction Inc., a Minnesota-based company, to build a section of the pipeline known as the Navajo Code Talkers Sublateral, which will run from Yah-ta-hey, New Mexico, to Window Rock, Arizona.

The two-year construction starts in January 2022 and includes a ground-level storage tank and installation of approximately 17 miles of pipeline. 

“This will mark another step towards meeting the United States’ obligation to the Navajo Nation under the nation’s water rights settlement agreement on the San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, where over a third of households still haul drinking water to their homes,” Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said about the funding. 

Once completed, the project will convey a reliable water supply from the San Juan River to the eastern section of the Navajo Nation, the southwestern portion of the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the city of Gallup, New Mexico via about 300 miles of pipeline, 19 pumping plants and two water treatment plants. 

These areas currently rely on a rapidly depleting groundwater supply that is of poor quality, often contaminated and inadequate. Groundwater levels for the city of Gallup have dropped approximately 200 feet over the past 10 years.

Funding for the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project comes from the Indian Water Rights Settlement Fund. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, included $2.5 billion to fully fund existing settlements of Indian water rights claims, according to the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President. 

“The department is excited to leverage the new resources in the bipartisan infrastructure law to make similar investments to ensure that clean, safe drinking water is a right in tribal communities,” Tanya Trujillo, the U.S. Interior Department assistant secretary for water and science, said about the funding. 

The State of New Mexico authorized the water supply project in a settlement agreement with the Navajo Nation for the use of waters in the San Juan River Basin in the northwest part of the state.