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WESTWATER, UTAH — Thomas Chee and Briana Austin waited more than 10 years to flip a switch that would change their lives.
In early September, the Navajo couple watched as electric utility crews connected their home in southeast Utah to the power grid. Their porch light beamed on, and someone called out “Yeehaw!”
“(It’s) almost an unreal feeling,” Chee said. “I can’t believe it. … It finally happened. We always was told it’ll be here, it’ll be here. Now all of the sudden, bam. So yeah, it’s an unreal feeling.”
Now Chee, the president of the small Navajo community, can focus his attention on the ultimate goal: bringing clean, running water to his community.
The connections are close in Westwater, a subdivision with 29 plots, 21 houses and 120 acres of desert scrubland outside the Navajo Nation reservation in San Juan County, Utah. From their backyards, residents can see homes in the city of Blanding — with green, irrigated landscaping or lit up against the night sky — across a narrow ravine less than 1 mile away.
Since 2001, the Navajo Nation has tried different approaches to bring running water to Westwater and quickly realized that electricity needed to come first. But the utility efforts ran into barrier after barrier — a lack of buy-in, insufficient funding, jurisdictional challenges. Nearly to the last minute, some residents doubted the projects would happen. Politicians came, made promises and never fulfilled them, they said.
Ultimately, it took a large, complex network of Indigenous, governmental and religious and community resources to pull off the $752,000 electricity project and secure $10.2 million for a future water project — plus the once-in-a-lifetime windfall of federal funding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you look at the scale of it, it may not be very many people, but I think it says a lot,” Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson said. “We shouldn’t have people in the state of Utah who live so close to a community that don’t have the same basic infrastructure and resources that everyone else in the state has. It’s almost a human rights issue in terms of need and want and neglect.”
Westwater and Blanding, population 3,400, sit near the center of San Juan County. Tourists pass through the area on the way to the striking rock formations of Monument Valley, Bears Ears National Monument and national parks in Moab. People live in Blanding for the small-town feel, the outdoors, and employment opportunities at the Utah State University campus, the uranium mill, hospitals or in agriculture.
It’s a region where water — the lack of it and the quality of it — is always a concern. Utah is part of the drought-ridden Colorado River Basin, which for decades has provided water, recreation, hydroelectricity and more to 40 million people spread across seven states, 29 tribes and Mexico.
When the Navajo Nation bought Westwater in 1986, it was like the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, said Teresa Showa, who is Diné and a retired hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources Water Management Branch.
Everyone in the Navajo community who was living nearby wanted to stake a claim. They brought in manufactured homes and travel trailers or built traditional hoguns and stick-built houses. They would have to haul water, use kerosene lamps and rely on wood stoves for heating, but people felt it would be cheaper than living in Blanding, Showa said.
Showa stumbled upon the community 15 years later while she was researching Navajo land in Utah for a water rights settlement case. That research sparked a new facet of her career: For the next 20 years, Showa pushed for better utility access in the community.
“I was going to go over there and get them water, but I didn’t think it was going to take 20 years,” Showa said. “You want good, respectable Navajos that live in these subdivisions to prosper just like any American can prosper.”
Westwater isn’t unique in its utility needs: About 14,000 of 55,000 Navajo homes were without electricity in 2010, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. About 18,000 homes were without water service. Connecting these houses to infrastructure can be a challenge. They are located all around the 27,400-square-mile reservation, which is nearly the size of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont combined.
For decades, Westwater residents have relied on solar panels and gasoline-powered generators for electricity. But on cloudy days, the solar power doesn’t last, many residents said. Generators are costly: Some residents said one tank of gasoline, about 5 gallons, would provide eight to 15 hours of electricity. They could easily spend $20 per day just to run the generator — not counting oil changes, repairs or the cost of the machine, which can cost $500 to $2,500 or higher depending on the type of generator.
If the machine turned off on a winter night, it would mean either a late-night trip for gasoline or near-freezing temperatures indoors. But if they decided to run it all the time, the generator’s engine would eventually wear out, and some people said they went through multiple, expensive machines in the same year.
If the solar power was out and the generator didn’t have gas, Briana Austin would plug her phone into her car to use it as an alarm clock, she said. When Mabel Billsie, 76, contracted COVID-19 this spring, her solar-powered system couldn’t support her oxygen concentrator, so she had to stay in a motel for two weeks. Bessie Begay said, with reliable electricity, her grandson would have an easier time with his homework.
“Instead of using that lantern, he could see his lessons better,” Begay said. “Sometimes the light goes dim and he can’t see, so I bring out my flashlight. I think it’s ruining his eyes.”
“One hurdle after another”
This was daily life in Westwater while Showa and her partners tried to improve electricity and water access. During the early 2000s, Showa saw efforts to improve water services, like an Indian Health Service community water project, come and go without success.
The utility improvement efforts regularly ran into bureaucratic barriers. To have running water, the community needed electricity to power water pumps. To have electricity, residents needed homesite leases, which are required for anyone who has a home on Navajo land or who wants to receive utility services from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
To have a lease approved, residents had to meet requirements like environmental standards — which required trash removal, which then required securing waste management services. To receive water services from the Indian Health Service, homes needed to meet sanitation requirements for bathrooms and kitchens, so the community worked with nonprofits to build houses.
“I was going to go over there and get them water, but I didn’t think it was going to take 20 years.”
— Teresa Showa, retired hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources.
Each step involved sub-steps that took months if not years to complete. The Westwater residents began applying for homesite leases in 2008, according to Department of Water Resources records. All leases were finally approved this summer.
The process went on for years. In 2009, the residents voted to create 29, 2-acre lots in Westwater. As far back as 2012, NTUA committed to a waterline connection project, and in 2014, Westwater began working on an electric line connection through Blanding, or if not, through an electric power company.
Westwater faced unique jurisdictional barriers: It was owned by the Navajo Nation, but it wasn’t within the boundaries of the reservation, which spreads across parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. It wasn’t part of Blanding or completely under San Juan County jurisdiction. The jurisdictional crossovers created a mire of red tape for the community.
After visiting Westwater in 2021, Henderson realized the state needed to get involved.
“What’s monumental about it is the challenges that had to be overcome in order to complete it. It’s only 29 homes. It’s a few dozen families,” she said. “It’s just a community that fell into a jurisdictional black hole, so there was no one really who felt responsible.”
Frustrations mounted when former Blanding officials seemed to place more barriers in the way of progress. At one point years ago, a past official told Showa it was illegal in Utah to haul domestic water to homes — even though it was being done in other rural areas within the state. In the 2000s, a former mayor offered to help Westwater get water, then reneged. It felt like a stab in the back, Showa said.
“It was one hurdle after another with the city of Blanding,” said Showa, who lives in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and retired in 2020.
Ryan T. Barton, who is Diné and another hydrologist, took over managing the project for the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources Water Management Branch. His role was integral to keeping up momentum: He drove six hours round trip from Fort Defiance, Arizona, to meet with Westwater residents one weekend each month, led monthly technical advisory board meetings with more than a dozen entities represented, and juggled the project with his other tasks at work.
“Not having access to utilities does have an impact on your quality of life and stress, like, ‘Is my fridge going to work?’ Basic necessities like that that everyone takes for granted,” Barton said. “What makes me excited is the elderly people in Westwater who finally have electricity after 20 years or so. It’s been so long, it feels like you can start to say ‘since time immemorial.’”
Leadership changes at the local, state and tribal levels also helped push the project forward. In 2021, Blanding amended a city policy allowing it to sell utility services to other public utilities, like NTUA, without annexation to the city.
In 2020, the Utah Legislature appropriated $500,000 for the electricity project but had to pull the funding when the pandemic hit. Then federal COVID-19 relief funds dedicated to infrastructure improvements provided unexpected windfalls across the country.
The state and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints each committed $500,000, while the Utah-Navajo Trust Fund threw in about $230,000 to cover Blanding’s costs. The remainder of the $1.2 million in funding will be used for a future water project, officials said.
The city of Blanding took on a central role — Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems is using the city’s infrastructure as a pass-through to sell electricity to the tribal utility authority, which then sells directly to individual homes.
“It couldn’t be a more fitting day to celebrate such a great accomplishment with everyone here today,” Blanding Mayor Logan Monson said during a celebration event Sept. 16. “The completion of the Westwater Power Project is just one step in reestablishing trust, building better relationships and ensuring basic needs are available.”
“I’m going to have light!”
This summer, long, wooden utility poles appeared in Westwater, ready to be erected. Crews strung power lines across the ravine from Blanding to Westwater.
“I was actually like, ‘Wow, it’s actually happening.’ If they brought the poles out, they must mean business,” Austin said. “That’s when I knew for sure they were serious; it’s actually going to happen this time.”
Within less than three weeks, the construction phase was complete, and 19 homes were ready to receive electricity. On Sept. 1, two NTUA crew members connected the power lines from Blanding to the master meter. Another NTUA employee raised a thin pole and flipped large, metal circuit switches at the top of a utility pole — the lines were energized.
Albert Cly, 83, who has lived in Westwater for more than 40 years, watched as the NTUA crew connected his meter to the power lines. Albert and Gladys Cly, 74, said their large solar panel met all their needs, but they were excited for the electric utility.
“It’ll take some time to get used to just turning on the light and seeing it light up,” Albert Cly said.
Many people, including Cly, were concerned about the possibility of blackouts, and they weren’t sure how much the new utility would cost, worrying that it would be expensive. The residents will learn more about their new utility in an upcoming homeowners orientation with NTUA, but the tribal utility authority said the average monthly rate for electricity is $46.26 in the summer and $65.23 in the winter.
For other residents, it was a relief to think about using the electricity without being concerned about keeping the generator on. Several were excited to buy air conditioning units, install washing machines and dryers, or use their electric pumps for running water more regularly — it could be hard to look professional for work or to take baths before school. They looked forward to using their microwaves and leaving their devices plugged in.
“I was happy. I was really happy. They turned it on in the afternoon, and I was saying, ‘I’m going to have light!’” Begay said. She and her family laughed that night when, out of habit, they started using their lanterns and forgot all about the electricity.
“You can turn on a light. We can go to the bathroom without sitting in the dark. I just love it. My grandkid, he turned it off and on for a while,” Begay said. “His eyes were big and he goes, ‘Grandma, you really do have light!’”
‘Now all I need is water’
On Sept. 1, Billsie watched the electric crew roam around her home, flipping switches and checking lights. When they left, she walked around the house and turned on every light at the same time, just because she could.
“My dream finally came true,” she said. “Now all I need is water.”
It might not take long to provide treated, running water for Westwater. The project is already entering its engineering and design phase, which is expected to wrap up in spring 2023.
Water will be drawn to the surface from a deep well that dives nearly 2,000 feet down to tap into the Navajo Aquifer. The well will serve both Westwater and Blanding and will be treated using the city’s water treatment plants, per an agreement approved in July.
This summer, the water project’s funding gap was also finally filled: the nonprofit Dig Deep, the Utah Division of Drinking Water, NTUA and the Navajo Nation pulled together $10.2 million for the deep well and water distribution system. About $3.5 million came from Utah’s COVID-relief funds, and of the Navajo Nation’s $5.5 million contribution, $3 million came from its relief funds.
This style of municipal-tribal partnerships has helped the Navajo Nation address utility needs in other borderland areas. Farmington and Gallup, both non-Native municipalities in New Mexico, have played important roles in water and electricity infrastructure projects for nearby Navajo communities.
“No city is an island, and it’s the same thing with a reservation,” said Maryann Ustick, the Gallup city manager. “If you’re in proximity with each other, and you each have your own resources, it only makes sense to partner with each other to get water supply because it’s such a complex, regulated process. For an entity to do it on their own is almost impossible.”
On Sept. 15, the San Juan Water Conservancy District approved an allocation of 50 acre-feet of water for the Westwater project. One acre-foot of water — 325,851 gallons or about half the size of an Olympic swimming pool — provides enough water each year for roughly two households, according to Colorado State University. Blanding will sell that 50 acre-feet of water to NTUA for use in Westwater.
In a river basin struggling with drought and water scarcity, water rights are a complex issue, particularly for tribes. In 1922, seven states in the Colorado River Basin — Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Nevada — divvied up the river in an agreement called the Colorado River Compact. Native Americans weren’t included in those negotiations; they weren’t considered U.S. citizens until 1924.
“That has left us out of the equation. One hundred years later, fast forward, we are still not part of the equation,” said Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and chairman of the 10 Tribes Partnership, a coalition that represents tribal interests in the management of the Colorado River Basin.
Now federally recognized tribes collectively own about 25% of the Colorado River’s annual flow, which includes legally superior senior water claims and is more than the amount some states have. But many Indigenous nations, including the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, are still working their way through state and federal courts to settle their water rights.
But even when water rights are settled, accessing the water is another issue. Like the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute and Southern Ute tribes in Colorado have federally reserved water rights that they can’t access because of infrastructure challenges. It’s particularly problematic during times of drought, like this year and last, when the tribe’s water supply can get cut.
It can take years to settle water claims, Heart said. For example, the Navajo Nation spent 18 years negotiating a water rights settlement in Utah and is still working to quantify its rights in Arizona. Tribes, both the Ute Mountain Ute and others, can’t wait that long, he said.
The current management guidelines for the Colorado River system are set to expire in 2026. Tribes are jockeying to ensure that, this time, they have a strong voice in negotiations.
“It has to be done by 2026, which is very short. We’re at the 12th hour because it takes time to go through this (settlement process), and some tribes are going to lose out,” Heart said. “They won’t have a destiny in their water allocations for the future for economic development.”
‘See myself in their struggles’
Days after the subdivision received electricity, Chee, Austin and their four kids were slowly moving into their home after staying with family for years.
Chee was ready to start tiling the kitchen floor — the project had been on hold because his solar/generator system wasn’t powerful enough to run his power tools. The family finally removed the plastic wrapping from their couch and set up their TV. The kids, who had been learning chess for entertainment, were most excited to have electricity so they could use their PlayStation, Chee said. Without the constant hum of the generator, the room felt unusually quiet.
“I felt like weird ’cause the generator would be on … and you could hear it outside,” 9-year-old Gage Chee said. “I haven’t got used to that yet.”
“The generator is pretty loud,” said Ammon Chee, 12.
Sometimes turning on the lights at night felt too bright, and they wondered if they could see the stars as well with the subdivision lit up.
Chee remembered growing up with just a lamp. When the family bought a propane lantern, it felt like the next big innovation. Years later, the family purchased a generator that powered the light and the TV, he said.
“That was it, and it changed our lives a lot,” he said. “With this, I know it’s going to change everybody’s lives for the better. I’m happy for my people so we can prosper and succeed in daily life.”
Already, Westwater residents were looking ahead to new goals, like improving internet access and purchasing solar panels to augment their systems with renewable energy. Community leaders talked about setting new goals for Westwater, occasionally mentioning that they could use their experience to help other communities with similar utility projects. At the community meeting Sept. 18, one resident said it felt like a miracle to just walk in, flip a switch and have the lights come on.
“Looking at this community, I see part of myself in it and their struggles,” Barton said.
When he was growing up, Barton’s family didn’t have electricity or running water either. They used a car battery to power a TV and a small generator to run an electric typewriter for schoolwork. Growing up that way, he didn’t realize how different life would be with the basic electricity and water that other people have, he said.
“Now that there is electricity,” Barton told community members at the meeting, “there’s so much more time to focus on other things and think of other goals and start working on those goals instead of worrying about spending $20 on fuel a day.”
This article was supported by The Water Desk, an independent journalism initiative based at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.