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Assessing the safety of drinking water in three Navajo Nation communities

Northern Navajo Nation

Featured image for the project, Assessing the safety of drinking water in three Navajo Nation communities

Photo credit: John Hosteen

This project aims to empower local community members and youth from three communities on or near the northern Navajo Nation to monitor the quality of their drinking water by training them in water quality sampling, testing methods, and data interpretation. With help from the community mentors and project scientists, youth will communicate results to the broader community to encourage informed decisions about where to access drinking water. The long-term goal of this project is to empower Navajo communities: young citizen scientists will know how to test their water and effectively communicate the results, and community members will have the knowledge to promote healthy lifestyles and make the best decisions for their families. If this project is successful, the model could be sustained and replicated across other Navajo Nation communities. 

Description

To most Navajo People, water is sacred and living. But establishing confidence in water safety is not an easy task given the historic events on the land, and concerns about water quality that have persisted on Navajo Nation land for hundreds of years. Uranium, vanadium, oil, gas, and coal mines, along with other natural resource extractions, have occurred throughout the Navajo Nation, leading to mining seepage which has the potential to pollute groundwater and surface water. People without access to running water in their homes, or who are dealing with water shortages and insecurity, may use livestock water wells for consumption, which are known to contain contaminants such as arsenic and uranium. In addition, recent events like the Gold King Mine Spill have reinforced concerns about the safety of drinking water. Distrust in water quality resulting from decades of natural resource extraction has led to a desire for community generated water quality testing.

The Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation has been actively engaged in promoting water access and consumption for the past few years, but distrust in water quality persists. The Notah Begay III Foundation (NB3F) “Water First!” community learning group identified barriers leading to children choosing sugar sweetened beverages instead of water and recommended community initiatives including setting up infused water stations and 30 day water challenges. These efforts to promote water consumption have been hampered by concerns about water quality.

The three regions of the Navajo Nation leading this project represent a population of about 3000 people, spread across the Four Corners Region of the high desert Colorado Plateau. An estimated 30% of people on the Navajo Nation lack access to running water, but even for those who do, concerns remain about the safety of their water. Communities are very rural and it is common for families to haul water to their homes in large containers in the back of trucks or on trailers. This project will support autonomous monitoring of water quality; it’s vital that the community feel confident in the quality of available drinking water as water is life.

 

The Project

The first phase will focus on planning and conducting water quality testing.

  • Establishing water quality testing protocols: what tests to run and how to run them. This includes determining which water quality tests will be the most informative and useful for the community’s needs, and the specific testing methodologies.
  • Finding the appropriate testing locations within each community
  • Training community leaders and youth groups in three communities across the Navajo Nation (Red Mesa AZ, Bluff UT, and Teec Nos Pos AZ)
  • Empowering youth to be active participants in water quality questions

 

The second phase will focus on communicating and sharing the results with the surrounding communities, enabling each resident to make their own informed decisions about water consumption.

  • Translating test results into meaningful information from a human health/consumption standpoint
  • Teaching the youth and mentor pairings understand how to interpret raw test results
  • Distributing test results to the local community, which may include writing one-to-two page summaries, simple visual signage to post near community water sources, and/or accessible graphics describing the test results and water safety

Project Team

Community Leads

Carmen George, MS [Navajo] (she/her) is from a small community on the Navajo Reservation near the four corners of the US called Beclabito, NM.  Carmen has been at the Community Outreach & Patient Empowerment program for 6 ½ years as the Research & MEQ manager.  COPE is a non-profit out of Gallup, NM that works in close partnership with Brigham & Women’s Hospital and Partners in Health.  Together, the organizations are committed to improving the health of Native people through programs such as Water First, Fruit and Vegetable Prescription program, and Healthy Navajo Stores Initiatives.  Working for the past 16 years on the Navajo Reservation has been rewarding and Carmen has seen small changes in the communities like children choosing infused fruit drinks over soda, which makes the public health initiatives worthwhile.  

 

Dr. Sonya Shin is a physician trained in infectious disease and internal medicine. She has worked for more than 20 years with the international social justice organization, Partners In Health, to develop and evaluate community-based programs to advance health equity. Since 2009, Dr. Shin has worked with Navajo Nation as the founding director of Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment Program, a Native-led 501(c)3 based in Gallup NM. She currently serves as the Contact Tracing Lead under the Navajo Nation Unified Command. She is also a practicing physician at Gallup Indian Medical Center.

 

Kerlissa Bitah, Navajo, is Salt Clan born for Clamp Tree Clan from Teec Nos Pos, Arizona. She works for the Family and Child Education (FACE) Program at T’iis Nazbas Community School in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona for the past 16 years. She coordinates the family literacy program designed to help Native American families, focusing on both adults and children (prenatal to 5 years) to become healthy and better themselves as individuals and as a family. The FACE program puts on school events to help families transition and become comfortable in school and community settings. To carry out this work, Mrs. Bitah also works closely with the local Chapter House, tribal officials and local resources in the community. It gives families enrolled in the program a sense of belonging and also increases participation in community events.

 

Malyssa Egge (she/her) has spent over a decade working with tribal, state, federal, and private grants and programs throughout the northern Navajo Nation and southeastern Utah. Malyssa completed a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Native American Studies at the University of South Dakota and a masters in Rural Sociology with an emphasis in Native American Community Development from South Dakota State University. Malyssa acknowledges that these expensive pieces of paper are not the only way to show competency and believes real credentials will never show up on paper. Malyssa is fascinated by the plant kingdom and concepts of food sovereignty. She enjoys the desert’s petrichor, the brilliant night sky, syncopated rhythm, contributing to community, and investing in youth. 

 

John Hosteen (Diné) of the Red Ochre and Tobacco Clan is a local videographer/photographer/river guide based in the four corners region of the southwest. John facilitates and collaborates with tribal and non-tribal organizations with the common interest of wellness, prevention, health equity, and health promotion. He is currently producing a video documentary and video projects for JHCAIH and the IHS.

 

Community Science Fellow

Kate Evans (she/her) is a PhD candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Montana/Flathead Lake Biological Station. Her current work focuses on the microbial community and metabolism of Flathead Lake with a particular interest in nutrient inputs. Prior to grad school, she obtained a BS in geobiology from Caltech and spent three summers at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona studying red supergiant stars. Her time in astronomy left her with a deep interest in coding and modeling, and she spent time with a local Montana high school teaching coding during an after school club. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, fostering kittens, and baking (sometimes poorly).

Scientist Wanted

We are looking for one or more scientists who can help train community members to evaluate the quality of their drinking water and communicate the findings to the community. The project is currently intended to supply water quality testing equipment to three community mentors, each paired with two youth, who will be the people actively testing the drinking water. We would like to have at least one scientist able to help train the community mentors on sampling and testing methodology, but are open to additional, remote scientists who can help design the sampling protocol and communicate the results. Below is a list of desired skills but no single individual needs to have all of them.

Desired skills and qualifications:

  • Expertise in water quality testing
  • Prefer at least one scientist who could train the community in-person (contingent on COVID restrictions), but this isn’t required of all participants
  • Interest or experience in environmental racism or Indigenous and rural communities
  • Interest or experience in jurisdictional overlaps, tribal governments, and departments
  • Interest in drinking water safety
  • Ability to communicate clearly with non-experts and work on a team with varied backgrounds
  • Ability to attend regular team meetings
  • Strong listening and collaboration skills
  • Experience mentoring / teaching youth a strong plus
  • Openness to community concerns and knowledge

 

Thriving Earth Exchange asks all scientific partners to work with the community to help define a project with concrete local impact to which they can contribute as pro-bono volunteers and collaborators. This work can also position the scientists and communities to seek additional funding, together, for the next stage.

Interested in volunteering on this project? Apply now!