‘We’re Going to Be Out of Water’: Navajo Nation Dying of Thirst

Navajo Nation: The impacts of drought have been widespread

For centuries, the Diné people have raised their families and livestock on the high desert lands of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. They have survived even the most difficult of conditions. But as drought has dragged on, more or less for two decades—and the climate continues to warm—some are saying the tribal government needs to better protect its water resources and undertake more long-term planning.

“When you’re living in the desert, you don’t expect it to get even worse,” said Russell Begaye, a Navajo Nation Tribal Council Delegate from Shiprock, NM. He pointed out that reservoir levels are dropping, farming plots are becoming sandier, and the rain- and snowfall have declined.

“Some of our leaders, and some of our people concerned about environmental issues are trying to make people aware,” he said. “It’s going to get progressively worse, we know that. But as a nation, the government, we are simply not ready.”

According to the most recent national climate change assessment, southwestern tribes—such as the Navajo—are among the most vulnerable to impacts from climate change. Published two years ago, that study notes that Navajo elders have noticed declines in snowfall, surface water and water supplies. Certain sacred springs, medicinal plants, and animals have disappeared or declined and dust storms have increased. And while scientists can’t say for sure at this point that extreme weather is tied to climate change, there’s no doubt that the past two years have been challenging—and expensive.

Rosalita Whitehair directs the Nation’s Department of Emergency Management. In the past two years, she said, there have been 11 emergency events, each costing the tribe between $2 million and $4 million. Two years ago, for example, the major flooding occurred in July, August and September 2013—affecting 88 of the tribe’s 110 chapters, damaging 140 homes and costing millions of dollars.

“My main thing I’m noticing here is that we are having a lot of weather extremes, in terms of the severe drought,” Whitehair said, adding that in a recent e-mail to chapter leaders, she asked them to continue mapping and GPS efforts because of the need to pay close attention to those who are continually being affected by emergencies.

“We’re seeing the same homes, the same people, the same places impacted by drought,” she said.

Whitehair regularly reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports. Currently, forecasters are predicting that throughout the spring and summer, the Southwest will experience El Niño conditions.

“The warmer season will be followed by rain,” said Whitehair. “And then when the rain comes, and hits the drought-impacted earth—which does not allow for percolation—it just runs off, and then we have all these homes that get flooded.”

In other words, although the precipitation is welcome during a drought, heavy rains cause problems.

The impacts of drought have been widespread, added Jeff Cole, wildlife manager with the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We’ve lost a lot of fishing lakes over the years because of the drought, and low snowpack and also because the water table is not recharging,” he said.

Over the course of three decades, they’ve lost 30 lakes—human-made fishing lakes, as well as playa lakes and natural water catchments atop the mesas, Cole said. Wildlife surveys also show low fawn-to-doe ratios. And while drought hasn’t directly affected priority species such as eagles, it does decrease the availability of their prey, Cole said, such as prairie dogs and rabbits.

His department already tries to provide water to wildlife by building earthen catchments and even occasionally drilling new water wells.

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