In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court issued what’s now called the Winters decision awarding priority water rights to Native Americans. The Court ruled when the U.S. government created its system of American Indian reservations, part of the deal tied water to the lands.
As a result: the Court gave the members of the Navajo Nation “paper water” — rights to some unquantified amount of water — but not “wet water.”
What that meant was made all too clear just five years later, when the U.S. Public Health Service made its first-ever survey of Native American health. It found alarming rates of contagious diseases, linked, the Service’s report said, to the absence of basic sanitary facilities, of which the most basic was water.
More than a century later, a survey found that almost half of tribal homes among the tribes of the Colorado River Basin had no access to reliable water sources, clean drinking water or basic sanitation.
What had happened in the intervening years and decades? Well, there was an Environmental Protection Agency drinking water program on the Navajo Reservation. But a 1980 GAO report said it was a mess and that of 32 drinking water wells were tested for bacteria and radionuclides, six of them showed excessive levels of radionuclide contamination.
Fade out of 1980 and fade in to 40 years later, 2020, when America was hit with the Coronavirus pandemic. During the first surge of COVID-19, deaths from the disease in the Navajo Nation came at five times the rate for the rest of New Mexico. Now that we’re in the latest resurgence of the disease’s Delta variant, the death rate from COVID is two and a half times the rate of New Mexico at large.
Why is that? Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation and an assistant professor at the University of Arizona points to a simple correlation: “the places we know have less running water, … are also the same places that have high infection rates.”
It’s not like no one has noticed. The CARES Act for pandemic recovery threw money at the Navajo Nation, but it wasn’t enough and it had rules that favored short-term band-aids over longer term solutions.
Elizabeth Miller is a New Mexico-based freelance journalist who writes frequently for NM in Depth. She describes her work as “writing about environmental issues, outdoor sports, and whatever other rabbit holes on science, art, and public health I fall into.”
Miller’s work has won Society of Professional Journalists Top of the Rockies awards for environment, science, and arts reporting and Association of Alternative Newsweeklies awards for investigative and beat reporting. She received a “Next Generation Professional” grant from the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and fellowships through the National Press Foundation and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Elizabeth Miller is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.