Water on its way to To’hajiilee!
By Colleen Keane
Special to the Times
As volunteers passed out bottled water one very hot day last July, To’hajiilee Chapter President Mark Begay pointed eastward and shared a vision he has had for a long time – a pipeline that would bring fresh water to To’hajiilee, ending reliance on an aging water system that keeps breaking down (Navajo Times, July 10, 2020).
But he added his dream had a major stumbling block – he couldn’t get a private property owner to come to the table to negotiate an easement. He’d been trying for two years with the help of consulting engineer George Mihalik from Souder, Miller and Associates. On Veteran’s Day, Begay received a message he’d been waiting and hoping for: the landowner, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, agreed to work out a deal with the Navajo Nation.
“It was a good Veterans Day for me,” said Begay, a Marine Corps veteran, in a phone call with the Times. “I got moved with emotions of joy and happiness. We don’t have to worry about future generations running out of water and pumps breaking down anymore.”
Delegate Jamie Henio, who represents To’hajiilee, Alamo and Ramah, said, “Words cannot describe the feeling we were having that day. (The people) will have good clean water, instead of that orange sludge.”
He was referring to the color and texture of the undrinkable water that trickles out of faucets in To’hajiilee homes. An estimated 2,500 people reside in To’hajiilee, a satellite community of the Navajo Nation located 24 miles west of Albuquerque.
According to Andrew Robertson, also from Souder, Miller and Associates, the agreement paves the way for construction of a 7.3-mile water transmission line. Terms cover the costs for the easement and partial use of WALH’s existing infrastructure, to name some.
WALH built a three-million-gallon water tank for a futuristic business and housing development on Albuquerque’s far west side. The tank is owned and operated by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority. The amount of the deal between WALH and the Navajo Nation had not been disclosed as of press time.
Property asset managers Jeff Garrett and Mat Look of Garrett Development Corporation are WALH’s representatives.
Long, difficult journey
“This was a long time coming,” Henio said. “(To’hajiilee) went through a gamut.” Without a reliable source of water before and during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, thousands of gallons of drinking water have been donated by city, county, state and federal governments, and individuals including former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and mixed martial arts champion Jon “Bones” Jones.
Concerned about her constituents, Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, D-District 1, pushed for the county to take control of the private property. In the spring, the commission agreed to move forward with condemnation if WALH didn’t come to the table soon to negotiate.
In July, frustrated that pipeline construction was still stalled, Begay, with support from O’Malley, organized a press conference to bring attention to the water crisis. Stories and editorials appeared in the Navajo Times, the Albuquerque Journal and on local TV stations. (Navajo Times, Aug. 1, 2020)
Putting more pressure on, an advocacy group, Friends of Tohajiilee, organized by Laurie Weahkee, Diné/Cochiti/Zuni, to date has secured 2,025 signatures in support of the water pipeline. Representatives from Pueblo Action Alliance, NAVA Education Project, Americans for Indian Opportunity, the Working Families Party and the Native American Democratic Caucus spoke out during an online Friends of To’hajiilee press conference.
“We stand in overwhelming support of Tohajiilee’ s struggle for clean water. The rest of the world is coming to the aid of the Navajo Nation, including Ireland,” stated AIO executive director Laura Harris, Comanche, who questioned why it’s taken WALH so long to step forward in the midst of a pandemic.
“This is a human rights issue!” she exclaimed.
Irish citizens began sending donations to the Navajo Nation as soon as they heard about the devastating impact of the coronavirus in Diné communities.
In August, Bernalillo County Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada, D-District 2, organized a task force identifying numerous stakeholders including tribal, city, county, state and federal representatives and private property owners. Quezada wrote in an Albuquerque Journal editorial that the task force was formed to find a better way of handling the crisis than going through the “arduous litigation” of condemning the property.
Eventually, Quezada turned his mediator role over to New Mexico State Sen. Daniel Ivie-Soto, D-District 15.
Meetings ran biweekly from Aug. 14 to Nov. 13. To’hajiilee lies in state District 22, Sen. Benny Shendo’s district. Hearing about the task force, Shendo, Jemez, pointed out in a phone call with the Navajo Times, “This (negotiation) is between the chapter, the county and landowner.” (Navajo Times, Oct. 16, 2020)
“I disagree with the stakeholder process,” said Weahkee, who expressed concern that the task force was stalling long enough to extract more money from the Navajo Nation.
Besides, she added, if a task force was needed, this should have been done earlier. “People would have had water a lot sooner,” she said. Ivie-Soto said the meetings were critical to hash out sticking points in negotiations. “It did take people sitting around talking to each other to figure out how to deliver water to the Navajo Nation in a way it didn’t disrupt the (planned) capacity of the (existing) system,” referring to the WALH’s property development,” he said.
“It (came) down to how to structure it, how to guarantee that the water (will continue) to flow for the next generation or two,” Ivie-Soto added. “The bottom line: I’m glad (WALH’s representatives) are at the table to negotiate in good faith,” said Henio.
“(This) helped to build the communication,” said WALH’s asset manager Garrett during the Nov. 13 task force meeting when Ivie-Soto made a formal announcement that the Navajo Nation and WALH had reached an agreement independent of the task force. Addressing Begay and several other representatives of the Navajo Nation, Garrett added, “We are here for you. We’ll help you get water soon.”
Henio said the agreement between WALH and the Navajo Nation is moving through the appropriate departments of tribal administration. Now that the hurdle of getting an easement from WAHL is out of the way, Robertson said the engineering team can start working on getting the project shovel-ready, which is a requirement for the New Mexico Water Trust Fund, a funding source for large water infrastructure projects. Construction costs are estimated between $6 and $8 million.
Garrett said he would support the funding application. If funds are in place by May, the pipeline will be completed, barring any other challenges, by the end of summer 2021, according to Robertson. “Everyone is working to get the pipeline project done as fast as they can,” he said.
On behalf of the people of To’hajiilee, Begay thanked everyone — the Navajo Nation Council, president and vice president, New Mexico congressional delegates, property owners, city and county state officials, Quezada, Ivie-Soto and task force members.
He sent special appreciation to Laurie Weahkee and the Friends of Tohajiilee; Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, Mark Sanchez of the city/county water authority, Alan Armijo from the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Rep. Harry Garcia, D-N.M.; The American Civil Liberties Union’s Preston Sanchez and New Mexico Indian Affairs Department Cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo. Begay apologized if he missed anyone, saying “You know who you are.” For Begay, this is only the beginning of his dream coming true.
“This isn’t complete until we turn on the water taps at To’hajiilee and see the water flow. That will be the ultimate joy!” he said. Information: To’hajiilee Chapter and To’hajiilee Diné on Facebook or Cañoncito Band of Navajo Health Center at 505-908-2380.