Thirst Aid

To one community living in the parched hinterlands of the Navajo Nation, Darlene Arviso provides water—and a wellspring of hope.

White plumes of smoke trail behind the hulking yellow water truck as it pulls away from St. Bonaventure Indian Mission in Thoreau, New Mexico. Easing into second gear, Darlene Arviso rumbles past the trailer park where she has lived with her family for three years, past St. Bonaventure’s Catholic grade school where, earlier this morning, she dropped off the students from her bus route, over the bridge spanning the train tracks, and onto the I-40 frontage road.

She heads east, the horizon tinged purple and royal blue. Through the windshield the open landscape rolls for mile after mile while the red sandstone cliffs of the Continental Divide tower to the north. Ten miles down the road, Darlene takes the turnoff for the community of Baca, water sloshing over the sides of the tank as asphalt gives way to dust and gravel. She comes to a stop behind a blue house next to four plastic 55-gallon barrels. With the truck still running, she hops out, unhooks a bulky, 25-foot hose from the back, and drags it over to the barrels. After filling them, she bends to lift the rusty metal lid of a pipe jutting from the ground, which leads to a 1,000-gallon subterranean tank connected to the house’s kitchen and bathroom. Thirty minutes later the tank is full, and she’s on her way.

The average American uses 100 gallons of water per day and would single-handedly drain that tank in just 10 days. But here on the Navajo Nation people average 7 gallons a day. It will be about a month before Darlene returns to replenish this family’s supply.

Darlene, a reserved 51-year-old with a wry sense of humor, delivers to more than 250 rural households surrounding Thoreau on the Navajo Nation, the largest, most populous American Indian reservation. Spanning 27,000 square miles across New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, it was established in 1868 and is now home to more than 170,000 people.

Many of the households Darlene serves completely lack in-home access to running water, a reality for 40 percent of the reservation’s residents. Those lucky enough to own indoor taps still rely on her because the mineral-heavy water that flows from their pipes isn’t suitable for drinking. “I stopped wearing white when I moved out here because the water turned my socks yellow,” says Chris Halter, St. Bonaventure’s executive director. “When you drank it, it felt like you had a stomach full
of lead.”

Just after noon, Darlene parks in front of a gray trailer house, a Navajo-language radio station booming through her speakers.

Darlene delivers to as many as 15 families per day.
Darlene delivers to as many as 15 families per day.

Half-listening, she pulls out a weathered clipboard and begins committing to paper her mental records from the morning’s deliveries: P. Yazzie – 1,200. D. Yazzie – 165. J.V. – 55. O.M. – 275. E. Long – 55.

Math was her favorite subject in school; numbers always clicked for her. With the deliveries she’s made so far, she calculates that there’s still enough in the truck’s 3,500-gallon tank to visit six more houses before she has to turn back for her afternoon school bus shift.

A muffled clatter draws her eyes from the clipboard, prompting her to peek at the side-view mirror. She laughs and jumps out. The trailer home’s owner, Benjamin Lewis, has commandeered the water hose. Darlene ambles over, teasing him good-naturedly in Navajo. Dressed in jeans, a striped button-up shirt, and a cream-colored cowboy hat, the 68-year-old Vietnam veteran cracks a grin and shouts, “I wish I could stay young like this forever!”

Benjamin grew up nearby on the reservation and remembers trekking a mile each way, at least twice a week, to a windmill-powered well with his siblings and the neighbors’ kids. Someone would push a wheelbarrow filled with empty containers. “It was kind of fun,” he recalls. They enjoyed playing in the area around the windmill. When they got tired of horsing around, the kids would fill the containers and push them back to the house, leaving them outside on a wooden bench for communal use.

Since he moved to his current home in 1998, Benjamin has been waiting for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to put in a new water line. Baca Chapter, the division of the Navajo Nation that governs this area, installed a septic tank for his bathroom, but he had to haul water from a nearby windmill-powered well for it to work. He used to fill his drinking barrels there too, until he found a sign posted on the well warning that the unregulated, untreated water had tested positive for uranium (a vestige of the area’s now shuttered mining industry), coliform bacteria, and nitrates from livestock waste.

Benjamin wasn’t surprised. “There’s a lot of other windmills besides the one here that I know have been contaminated. Just about almost every windmill out here, you can see signs on.”

He could have gotten water at his mom’s house, a little over 8 miles to the north, but he would have only been able to carry small containers. After seeing the yellow truck out for delivery, he approached Darlene and asked to be added to her route. Now Benjamin has relied on her to supply water for the past two years.

Workers from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority showed up on Benjamin’s property with a backhoe last year, and he was hopeful they would move ahead with the new water line. Instead, they only dug a shallow hole that they covered up again before the end of the day. The ground was too hard, they explained, and regulations forbade them from using dynamite to break through it. They promised to return with different equipment. That was last summer. He hasn’t heard a word since.

“I’m well-set here,” Benjamin says. “Really, I don’t have anything to complain about but the water. But one of these days I’ll get it. With the coming spring, I’ll probably have running water.”

When Darlene was growing up on the reservation, her family didn’t have an indoor tap. At least once a week they hauled their barrels several miles to fill them at their church’s well. She and her sisters washed their hair only on Sundays and Thursdays. When doing the dishes, they would save the rinse water for washing the next round. She remembers her grandfather, a medicine man who made the family’s moccasins, frequently chastising her and her siblings, “You need to save the water!”

She graduated from Thoreau High School and settled nearby after marrying a ranch hand, Tom, who had also grown up on the Navajo Nation. The couple worked hard to provide for their family—four kids, plus Darlene’s mom, grandmother, and several nieces and nephews. Back then, Darlene was a self-employed jewelry maker, crafting earrings and other pieces out of silver.

As the kids got older, though, she grew tired of being a silversmith. In 2002, she told Tom she wanted to work as a school bus driver. He went with her to an employment office, where she signed up to earn her commercial driver’s license. Driving home, the future looked bright.

But one week before her test, a horse fell on top of Tom while he was training it, and he died of his injuries. Their oldest child had just graduated from high school; their youngest was 8. The burden of providing for the family rested squarely on Darlene’s shoulders.

She took a job driving a water truck for an Albuquerque, New Mexico–based construction company, which laid her off after a few months. She went to a similar job at another company, only to be laid off again.

Between Darlene’s unemployment benefits, her eldest daughter’s income as a heavy machinery operator, the younger children’s survivors’ benefits, and the extra cash that her two sons brought in chopping and selling firewood, the family cobbled together a living. “We had our own house—all we needed was to pay for water, electricity, and propane for cooking. We made it through,” she says. It was a difficult, frustrating time, “but there were more blessings.”

She knew that St. Bonaventure Indian Mission offered help to people in the community, including house repairs, food, clothing, and utility assistance, “but I thought it was for people who really needed help.”

It wasn’t until the family couldn’t pay their electric bill that she finally went to ask for assistance. While filling out the paper-work, she gave her CDL to the receptionist, who immediately called executive director Chris Halter.

A new diesel-powered Chevy C8500 had arrived just one month earlier. It was custom-fitted with a food-grade water tank, as well as a special suspension system designed to mitigate the wear and tear brought on by the reservation’s rocky terrain. But Chris hesitated to send it out for delivery. “I needed someone to take care of this water truck and make it last for a long time.” Watching how roughly his drivers—all men—handled the old truck and the mission’s other vehicles convinced him that St. Bonaventure needed a female driver.

So Chris told his staff to pass along the word about the opening to any female truck drivers they knew. And then Darlene walked in. “I thought, She’s precisely what I’m looking for,” he recalls. He hired her the next day.

After eight years she still finds the work deeply rewarding—it resonates with the values of her Navajo upbringing and her Christian faith. “Plus I know how it is to have no water,” she says, “so I want to help.”

Today, everyone in the community knows Darlene as the Water Lady, waving when they pass on remote stretches of road and coming out to chat when she arrives at their home. The staff at St. Bonaventure calls her their eyes and ears—and her help isn’t limited to water delivery.

Darlene’s favorite part of the job: Visiting her clients, like 89-year-old Nina Garcia.
Darlene’s favorite part of the job: Visiting her clients, like 89-year-old Nina Garcia.

If someone’s roof is wearing out, Darlene tells the mission to dispatch a repair crew to the residence. If a household needs lamp oil or warm clothing or nonperishable food, she drops by the next time she’s in the area. She often spends extra time visiting with the elderly, filling them in on their kids’ lives or just listening when they want to talk. “Sometimes, if they’re sick and need prayer, I’ll pray with them,” she says.

When she stops by the gas station one morning for a cup of coffee, she runs into a young man whose mother passed away two years ago. Darlene knows he’s been struggling lately, and she offers encouragement and kind words in Navajo.

Back in the truck minutes later, she says, “I’m everybody’s auntie, sister, mom … ”

St. Bonaventure began trucking water out to the surrounding community in 1978, four years after the mission’s founding. At the time the service reached far fewer people. It was a matter of resources: The truck that was used until 2008 held only 3,000 gallons and was notoriously unreliable. “It spent more days in the shop than it did delivering water,” Chris says.

The same year that St. Bonaventure started up the service, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority drilled wells in Smith Lake, a town just across the Continental Divide from Thoreau. As houses were hooked up to the resulting infrastructure, they were removed from the mission’s delivery route. But the staff soon discovered these households still needed them.

The wells hadn’t been dug deep enough, and the water was laced with all sorts of minerals. It didn’t pose any immediate health risks, but what flowed out of the taps was often tinted brown or black and smelled of sulfur.

Until a donor visited the Navajo Nation, George had no idea that there were people living without running water in the United States.

Chris sent out a plea for donations so St. Bonaventure could expand its service. In response, a couple from Texas stepped forward and bought the truck Darlene drives now. Smith Lake residents were added back to the route. “The program is definitely bigger and better now than it ever was,” Chris says. “But we can’t get by on just one truck, and we need to deliver more water.”

The number of homes with indoor taps has grown at a plodding pace, and rocky land isn’t the only obstacle. Some people live on land so remote that connecting a house to the existing infrastructure would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, an expense that neither residents nor their chapters can come close to affording.

People can purchase bottled drinking water at the gas station or the Dollar General, but it’s too expensive to buy what a family needs for everyday cleaning and cooking. Some visit coin-operated filling stations in the cities of Crownpoint or Gallup, lugging barrels, tanks, and buckets up to 100 miles round-trip.

St. Bonaventure has an on-site well with a free public spigot, but people are asked to self-limit how much they take home. “You got to look out for the next person,” says office manager Cindy Howe. But hauling water, whether from the city or from the mission, requires transportation—and the strength to lift the full barrels and jugs (5 gallons weighs 40 pounds). For the elderly and the rural poor, delivery is the only option.

Thankfully, St. Bonaventure has help. The mission is collaborating with DigDeep, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit focused on defending the human right to water. Before the partnership with St. Bonaventure, called the Navajo Water Project, DigDeep helped build infrastructure exclusively in Africa. Executive director George McGraw, who studied international law at the United Nations’ University for Peace, was shocked—and embarrassed—when, in 2012, he found out about the conditions on the reservation.

Until he heard from a donor who had visited the Navajo Nation on a mission trip, George hadn’t known that there were people living without running water in the United States. According to the most recent American Community Survey, one-half of one percent of households in the U.S.—about 1.6 million people—lack complete indoor plumbing systems. DigDeep is working to change that, beginning with the Navajo Water Project.

“There are three problems that we’re solving on the reservation,” George says. “First, our current clients aren’t getting enough water. Second, they’re keeping it in barrels, buckets, pickle jars, cups—whatever can hold it. Finally, there are more potential clients that we need to hook up to the project, and the whole system needs to be made more efficient in order to be able to serve them.”

So far, they’ve procured another water truck—which was retrofitted with a new engine and a food-grade tank—and a second driver, allowing St. Bonaventure to double the monthly deliveries. Last November, the next phase began: installing in-home water systems complete with 1,200-gallon underground cisterns, sinks, showers, and electric water heaters. The goal is to equip 205 households by the end of 2018. By far the costliest and most complicated objective is still in the works: drilling a new well at Smith Lake. If all goes according to plan, construction will be underway by March or April, and clients could receive clean Smith Lake water as early as mid-2016.

Eventually the goal is to get running water into all the houses, but realistically that’s a very long-term aim. “I think that, as much as I’d like to say we’ll phase out the water truck in my lifetime, we won’t,” says Chris, who’s 48.

Darlene will continue delivering to every household on the list. She’ll also keep driving the old truck. “This one has air conditioning,” she says with a sly smile.

In the scant shade of a scrawny tree, Darlene peers inside a blue barrel. “That one’s still dirty.” The small plastic caps used to plug the barrels’ openings tend to go missing, letting in bugs and wind-borne debris.

Holding the hose over the barrel, Darlene grips the nozzle’s red handle and releases a gushing stream. She gives the container a swirl and, after dumping out the dirty water, discovers something at the bottom. Tipping the barrel over, she reaches in and pulls out a piece of red garden hose used as a siphon. She hangs it from a tree branch

“Hi!”

Darlene turns at the sound of the young voice to see two boys, 8 and 7, who’ve ventured out of the house at the end of the lot.

She knows the kids well; she brought water here to their grandmother before the grandmother passed away and the boys’ parents moved onto the land. “I took out the hose,” Darlene tells them.

“My mom says the barrel was dirty,” the older kid says, drawing closer. His brother hangs back, observing silently but curiously.

“I cleaned it,” Darlene says. She chats with them about school—they have the day off for Columbus Day—asking where they go, even though she already knows the answer. Then she asks if they have anything else for her to fill. The two kids disappear into a nearby hogan—an eight-sided house built in traditional Navajo style—and return with an empty 1-gallon apple juice jug. Darlene fills it up at the spigot on the side of the truck. The brothers thank her and turn back toward their house, carrying the now heavy bottle between them.

Back in the driver’s seat, Darlene glances in her side-view mirror and catches sight of the boys pumping their fists. She obliges and honks the horn, laughing as their faces disappear from view.


Gabbi Chee Cotherman is a former assistant editor of this magazine. Email her at gabbi.chee@gmail.com.

Photography by Minesh Bacrania

Originally Published February 2016