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
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.
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.”