Southwest's water crisis hitting Navajo people first – and hardest

The drought on the reservation could serve as a barometer for the rest of Arizona.

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LEUPP, Ariz. – A lifetime of declining snowfall on the Navajo Reservation is making an already unforgiving desert landscape increasingly uninhabitable.

Snow tracked at six northeastern Arizona weather stations has plummeted by more than two-thirds on average since the 1930s, according to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Dozens of streams that flowed year-round on the reservation now dry up seasonally, and the parched springs and wells along their banks send isolated residents on long drives for store-bought water.

Local temperatures rising on average 2 degrees Celsius since the 1960s have sapped moisture. The advancing water crisis here could be a preview of the Greater Southwest’s challenges, as warming winter temperatures morph snow into rain and accelerate evaporation across the highlands.

The Salt and Verde rivers, a crucial supplier to the Phoenix area, originate in the snows that ring the reservation along the Mogollon Rim. And the Colorado River, lifeblood of the entire Southwest, starts with Rocky Mountain snows that also are fading.

“It’s just hitting the Navajo people first,” USGS geomorphologist Margaret Hiza Redsteer said.

And perhaps hardest.

As in Bolivia and other global pockets of poverty, worsening water scarcity comes down hard on those with the fewest means of adapting. The Navajo Nation’s median household income of about $20,000 is less than half Arizona’s average. The tribe’s Economic Development Division lists the unemployment rate at 42 percent and the poverty rate at 43 percent.

The drying has forced major changes on Navajos, making their lives even more difficult.

“We used to go to the river and plant corn,” said Alice McCabe, 70, a Navajo who has lived her adult life in and around Leupp. “But not anymore, because it gets dry.”

That family farming ended 30 years ago, for her and her neighbors who roasted a traditional corn variety and also used it in ceremonies.

“Now we’re just buying sweet corn from the stores (in Winslow),” McCabe said.

Likewise, she and husband, Jimmie McCabe, 73, used to retrieve water from a spring a couple of miles away from his ancestral homestead out a web of dirt roads west of Leupp. The spring dried up 15 years ago, he said. Now, though the tribe provides drinking water in Leupp, they often stock the ranch with bottled water from their 60-mile round trips to a Winslow supermarket.

“For a long time there’s no snow,” he said.


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The first hit

Drought changes reservation life

Eighty years of declining snowfall have changed the landcape of the Navajo Nation, with direct implications for the Navajo people. (David Wallace/The Republic)


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Effects of drying

Riverbeds now source of blowing dust

The McCabes’ memories match the story that the government researcher, Hiza Redsteer, has compiled with colleagues through interviews with 73 Navajo elders. The interviews are part of a forthcoming study of the Navajos’ vulnerability to climate change.

The draft study concludes that at least 30 formerly perennial streams now flow only seasonally, and that on all of the reservation only a stretch of the Little Colorado River upstream from the Grand Canyon now continues year-round.

“Used to be a lot of running water in the wash,” said 70-year-old Levi Biggambler, who was born next to Jeddito Wash on the boundary with the Hopi Reservation and still lives there.

He recalls his family’s plots of corn, watermelon and other crops that he can no longer grow.

Hiza Redsteer’s study includes one resident’s memory that Jeddito Wash flowed consistently in the 1960s and 1970s, and many families planted fields there. Another recalled that in the 1930s the soil was moist to several centimeters in depth, because of deep snows.

Data from weather stations in the reservation’s Tsezhin Tah region north of Winslow indicate that annual snowfall that averaged about 17 inches in the 1930s declined steadily to 5 inches by the 21st century, Hiza Redsteer found.

Both the interviews and historic scientific journals recall widespread planting of corn and other crops along river floodplains, Hiza Redsteer said, where today there’s not enough water. Dry riverbeds are, instead, a major source of blowing dust.

Where snow has switched to winter rain, she said, the moisture is less able to sustain streams and springs through the dry times of year. Much of it runs away or evaporates quickly instead of melting into the soil, and increasing warmth makes shrubs and grasses thirstier.

The changes on Navajo land reflect a broader trend. Scientists say a warming climate threatens snowpack and moisture throughout the Colorado River basin, from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Though the snowpack decline that Hiza Redsteer tracked at six sites is stark, it’s impossible to put a number on the total century-long decline across the reservation. Numbers from a larger government network of snow stations are only available going back to the 1980s.

Data from those sites mostly demonstrate the effects of the past 15 years of drought, broken by a couple of wet winters brought on by ocean temperature shifts known as El Niño.

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Several University of Arizona researchers who authored a 2012 paper on snowpack changes in the interior West found that as temperatures crept up in recent decades, snow and its moisture content declined. This was especially true in watersheds in the vicinity of the Navajo Reservation, including the San Juan River, which joins the Colorado at Lake Powell.

That drainage’s snowpack, on its highest day of winter, has lost about 2 inches of water per decade since the study data’s starting point in 1984. It shrank while temperatures warmed by 0.6 degrees Celsius per decade. Though rain replaced some snow, overall winter precipitation also declined.

The San Juan monitoring sites experienced the Southwest’s worst declines in the study, though the Lower Colorado — including the Salt and Verde rivers that help supply metro Phoenix — also lost snow and water.

Gregg Garfin, a University of Arizona climate scientist who helped write the Southwest chapter for a 2014 National Climate Assessment, noted that his colleagues also determined the snow is melting earlier and covering the ground fewer days.

“All snow-related parameters are going in the direction of less snow,” he said in an e-mail.

The National Climate Assessment that Garfin co-authored projected a dramatic decrease in the Arizona high country’s already skimpy snowpack if greenhouse gas emissions continue increasing. Measured against the late 20th-century average, Garfin’s team predicted 12 percent of normal moisture in the snowpack by 2100.

Upstream states that contribute the bulk of the Colorado River are not expected to suffer such losses, percentage-wise, though their losses will hurt the regional water balance more. Colorado, for instance, is the river’s biggest source and is projected to lose 26 percent of its snow moisture.

“We need every drop of water that we can get from the Colorado,” Garfin said.


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A new source?

Engineers turn to desalination

Robert Seaman, left, a University of Arizona chemical and environmental engineering research technician, and Seth Lawrence, a Northern Arizona University mechanical engineering undergraduate, repair a desalinization plant outside of Leupp, Ariz. (David Wallace/The Republic)

This summer the McCabes trekked from their Navajo homestead to a nearby community well, to hoist sticks atop a shade structure for their cattle milling around a trough there. The well is deep enough to draw water, but it’s tapping ancient seawater that is too salty for people — not the percolated snowmelt that once sustained people here.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, with help from University of Arizona engineering students, is working on that. They’ve assembled a solar-powered desalination plant next to the well to test a system that one day could be replicated across the reservation.

The well is clear of uranium contamination, a threat for many wells around a reservation that once hosted hundreds of unregulated uranium mines.

An array of photovoltaic panels and mirrors both pumps the water and heats it in a distilling process that recovers 95 percent of the water and dumps the rest with the salt. It’s working, but the researchers aren’t yet sure of the cost per gallon.

How the purification system works

The technology that University of Arizona engineers are testing at a Navajo Reservation well uses solar energy to heat a nontoxic glycol solution, which in turn heats water for purification.


The heat vaporizes the water and increases pressure in a pipe containing thousands filter membranes arrayed like bunched-up straws. Pure water passes to the outside of the straw, but dissolved solids including salt can’t. This is the same process that orange juice suppliers use to remove water and make juice concentrate.


The resulting distilled water is mixed back with some of the source water to provide a suitable level of minerals and ions. The remaining unpurified water containing the concentrated brine is dumped into an evaporation pond.

The Bureau of Reclamation has given the university $75,000 in each of the past two years to work on the project, and will seek $150,000 next year for a parallel test of a reverse-osmosis system with the same power source, testing which is more efficient and reliable.

“This is one small component (of a regional water plan),” said Mitch Haws, the bureau’s project leader. “It this technology works, it will service about 135 households in the area.”

The goal, he said, is to perfect a system that can be replicated and turned over to the tribe’s local governments for routine operation and maintenance. He expects the remote plant to produce about 1,000 gallons of clean water daily for households and their livestock.

For now, there are still kinks. This summer Haws spent a morning trying to wrench the sun-tracking mirrors into proper alignment because blowing sand had locked up bearings in the automated system.

The water rising from this well is full of dissolved solids — essentially salt — at 1,400 parts per million. That’s double the levels in the Colorado River, and 400 parts per million above the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking standard.

But it’s just a fraction of the salt content in the ocean, about 35,000 parts per million. Haws believes solar desalination projects cleaning moderately salty water could be a major part of the Southwest’s future water security.

“We’ve dammed all the rivers that we’re going to dam,” he said. “I think desalination is the next source.”


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Parched landscape

Dry brush grows in former farming centers

Alice McCabe splashes water on her 3-year-old grandson, Jayden. She uses the water for her livestock. (David Wallace/The Republic)

A functioning water treatment plant would save a lot of trips to town for residents like the McCabes and their neighbors near a seasonally parched stretch of the Little Colorado River.

“Tell them to hurry,” Alice McCabe said as they continued their journey to the well.

Her nephew, 53-year-old Raymond Stayne, lives at the dry homestead. He sometimes drives 80 miles to Oak Creek Canyon, south of Flagstaff, for spring water, because he believes it makes the best coffee. Sometimes, though, he just drinks from the salty well, “If I don’t have anything. If I’m dying of thirst.”

Tens of thousands of Navajos lack safe drinking water in or near their homes. They include more than 50,000 who haul from unregulated, potentially contaminated sources, according to tribal water officials.

The tribe may yet be awarded a needed slice of the Colorado River, as other tribes have through federal negotiations. But the river is a shrinking resource with no guarantee that even currently binding allocations will hold up in a future with vastly more Southwesterners.

Federal projections, thought conservative by many scientists, predict a river flowing about a tenth behind its historic pace by midcentury.

At Tolani Lake, northeast of Leupp, a flat that once routinely collected water streaming off a mesa is now a dry playa. It was a corn farming center in the 1970s, Hiza Redsteer said, but now grows only dry brush.

That brush and various invasive plants are sucking up more water as the cold season shrinks, she said. At nearly 5,000 feet elevation, the area experienced high temperatures in the 60s last January.

“When that happens,” researcher Hiza Redsteer said, “plants aren’t dormant in winter anymore.”

She believes the drying land and resulting difficulty raising livestock is forcing young Navajos to seek jobs elsewhere. The overall tribal population grew slightly between 2000 and 2010, but the U.S. Census found that the reservation population declined nearly 4 percent, to 174,000.

Ann-Marie Chischilly grew up on the reservation in Shonto, Ariz., and now is saddened when she returns from Flagstaff to the drought-stricken village. Medicinal plants that her grandparents taught her about no longer grow there.

“That little community used to be an oasis with lush yards and gardens,” she said. Now, “When it’s just a little bit windy, the dust is just unlivable.”

Chischilly directs the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. She fears that continued drought will force more to truck their water as wells dry.

The tribe, she said, must plan for “surviving what could be a difficult time in our history.”

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Chapters
The first hit
Drought changes reservation life
Effects of drying
Riverbeds now source of blowing dust
Parched landscape
Dry brush grows in former farming centers
A new source?
Engineers turn to desalination