NRCS helps replace livestock wells in Teec, Red Mesa

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, August 8, 2013

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H undreds of wells dot the Navajo Nation landscape.

Some are regulated by the Navajo Tribal Utility. Others are evidence of the oil and gas industry on reservation land. The vast majority, however, are unregulated water sources at risk of contamination, said Jack Utter, principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation Water Code Administration.

"With all the exploratory drilling, we have scattered wells that were not developed for livestock or people," he said. "There are literally hundreds of wells out there."

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency estimates the number of unregulated water sources - either springs or livestock wells - is in the low thousands. Thirty percent of Navajo Nation residents haul water for homes and livestock. That's about 54,000 people who have to make a choice either to travel farther distances to haul regulated water, or take the chance that an unregulated source is clean.

Residents in two chapters now have the guarantee that the water they haul is free of contaminants.

The United States Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service recently helped cap two wells contaminated with arsenic, uranium and E. coli, and replace them with new wells. The wells, located in Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa, were used to water about 1,000 cattle each.

In recent years, the Navajo Nation Water Code Administration found that the water was not potable for humans or livestock, forcing ranchers to travel as long as two hours to haul water, said Barry Hamilton, assistant state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service office in Price, Utah.

Hamilton oversees more than 100 wells on Navajo land in Utah alone. He said contamination in wells is widespread, and local chapter governments have to prioritize wells that should be replaced.

"Chapters look at their maps and pick the wells they want replaced, in terms of which are being used by the highest number of people," Hamilton said. "They pick the wells that are serving the most livestock, the most community members."

Chapters then apply for assistance from the Natural Resources Conservation Service which, in this case, contributed 90 percent of the cost to dig new wells in Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa and cap the old ones.

Contaminants like arsenic and uranium - common in many areas of the Nation - are unhealthy for people and animals, Hamilton said.

"Too much of that stuff will kill you," he said. "It's bad for crops, bad for livestock, and it can mean death for humans."

Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency policy prohibits the use of unregulated sources for human consumption because those sources are not routinely tested. However, human consumption of unregulated water is widespread because of the lack of public water systems in the more remote areas of the reservation.

The use of unregulated water sources is the greatest public health risk associated with drinking water on the Navajo Nation, the NNEPA reported.

About 12 percent of unregulated water sources are believed to be contaminated, the NNEPA found. Since 2006, the Navajo and U.S. Environmental Protection Agencies, along with the Centers for Disease Control, have sampled 240 water sources based on proximity to abandoned uranium mines. Twenty-nine of those sources, most of which were used for livestock and some human consumption, exceeded drinking water standards for uranium.

The NNEPA also contributed to a 2008 survey of drinking water sources and found that about 14 percent of households hauling water from wells were using water that exceeded standards for either uranium or arsenic.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service now is helping Teec Nos Pos and Red Mesa install pipelines and troughs to provide cattle multiple access points to clean water, Hamilton said.