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Tó éí ííná át'é: Water is life

Alongside Rotary and the nonprofit DigDeep, the Navajo are bringing a vital commodity to their ancestral homeland

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If there were one place on the planet impervious to the ravages of the pandemic, you might have guessed it would be the Navajo Nation. Viewed from a distance, it seems impregnable, a remote, self-contained country spread across three U.S. states — Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah — and encompassing more than 27,000 square miles, its ancient boundaries marked by four sacred mountains: Dibé Ntsaa (Hesperus Mountain) on the north, Tsoodził (Mount Taylor) on the south, Sisnaajiní (Blanca Peak) on the east, and Dook'o'oosłiid (San Francisco Peaks) on the west.

In the Navajo Nation, signs of drought are visible around a former watering hole near Cameron, Arizona.

As it turns out, you would have guessed wrong. Terribly wrong. The first cases of COVID-19 in Navajo Nation were diagnosed in March 2020, the outbreak spread by a church gathering in a small town in northeastern Arizona. Two months later, there had been 100 pandemic deaths in Navajo Nation, which reported a higher per capita infection rate than any of the 50 U.S. states. As of mid-May 2022, more than 53,000 COVID cases had been confirmed there — that's a 32 percent infection rate — and 1,770 deaths. With a population of about 165,000, there has been one death for every 93 people living in the Nation.

"That's a huge percentage of our population," laments Emma Robbins, who grew up not far from the Grand Canyon. "It hit all of us hard on the reservation. We lost so many Elders, and so we've lost libraries of wisdom, language, tradition. That's something we'll never get back. That's not just a loss of life; it's a loss of our culture. It highlighted what has always existed: We don't have the same things that other Americans do."

Those disparities contributed directly to the tragic losses suffered by the Navajo during the pandemic. Many residents travel great distances to find a grocery store or a place to buy other necessities, and when they would return to the reservation, the infection came with them. And with several generations of a family often sharing one small home, and a third of households living below the federal poverty level, Navajo Nation became a fertile breeding ground for COVID-19.

Furthermore, in the months before a vaccine became available, the Navajo Nation lacked ready access to what was recommended as a principal deterrent to the spread of the illness. "When COVID came, what's the first thing they said?" asks Curt Ward. "'Wash your hands.' Well, when you don't have running water, that's tough to do."

Elijah Bitsaie trains a horse at his family home near Tuba City, Arizona, the largest community in the Navajo Nation.

A member and past president of the Rotary Club of Gilbert, Arizona, Ward is a relative newcomer to the Southwest. "I moved here from Iowa in 2014, and water poverty was a new thing to me," he says. Even before the pandemic, Ward had begun reading about the water problems in the Navajo Nation, and he was shocked to learn that while the average American uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day, the average Navajo uses only seven. "And in some cases," Ward says, "it's less than that."

Robbins knows all about the shortage of water in the Nation, only she learned about it firsthand. She'd grown up in Tuba City — which she describes as "the largest community on the rez" — and her family had access to running water. But she remembers how, when she was a girl, her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins would travel to her family's home to shower and fill containers with water before returning to their own waterless homes. And she blames her grandmother's death from cancer on the scores of abandoned uranium mines that dot the Nation and pollute below-ground water sources.

Ward lives in a suburb of Phoenix, about 200 miles south of Tuba City, but he and, as it turned out, other Rotarians were eager to do what they could to assist the Navajo in their quest for water. "People who think the Navajo wouldn't know what to do with water if they had it are just dead wrong," he says. "They value it; they worship it. They just don't have any of it. We don't need to teach the Navajo about water; we just need to help them get it."

Rotary stood ready to do that, as did Robbins, who had left the reservation in her teens to attend college and begin her career as an artist. And, as ever, the Navajo people, the centuries-old caretakers of their homeland, were poised to proceed. Only one more thing was needed to complete the tetrad, that fourth point of the compass with which to map out the way to water.

"There’s no other place in the United States like it. It’s so beautiful."

"I have always been obsessed with water," admits George McGraw. "My mom would take me to the zoo, she would turn around, and I would be stripped naked and running in the fountain by the entrance. You can't keep me out of it."

In 2009, McGraw graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a bachelor's in philosophy, though the most significant thing he learned there lies outside that realm. "As a millennial from a middle-class background, I was privileged," he explains. "I didn't know that so many people didn't have access to water. I was flabbergasted to find out about that in college and immediately wanted to do something about it."

Two years after graduation, McGraw started an organization called DigDeep. Today, on its website, it's described as "a human rights nonprofit working to ensure that every American has clean, running water" — but it didn't exactly start out that way. DigDeep initially operated in Cameroon and South Sudan, where it built water systems in rural areas. Then, in 2013, DigDeep got a phone call from a woman who wanted to make a donation — only she insisted that the money be used in the Navajo Nation. She had been volunteering there and saw homes built without kitchens or bathrooms because there wasn't access to running water. In fact, as McGraw learned, 30 percent of the families in the Nation were living without running water.

"That was definitely an aha moment for me," McGraw says. "I hadn't realized there were so many people in my own backyard without access. We hadn't even thought about working in the U.S." He would more fully comprehend the breadth of the problem as DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance prepared Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan, a 95-page report published in 2019. "We didn't even know that the total number of people [in the U.S. without access to water and basic indoor plumbing] was 2.2 million until we did that study," McGraw says.

DigDeep handed off its last international project to local partners in 2016 and has since concentrated its efforts in the United States, working in Appalachia and other parts of the country. But DigDeep's greatest impact has come in the Southwest with its Navajo Water Project, which began in 2014 when the organization installed a water system for a Navajo family in Thoreau, New Mexico. Thoreau — pronounced thuh-ROO — is also home to the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School, which provides opportunities for education, employment, and housing and offers a variety of social services that, among other things, make available clothing, food, and water to the people of the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation. Among the mission's employees is Darlene Arviso. Most days you can find her driving a big yellow tanker truck filled with 3,500 gallons of water, which she delivers to Navajo homes scattered among the mesas in the desert outside Thoreau. Only half-jokingly, McGraw calls Arviso the real founder of DigDeep. Everyone else knows her as the Water Lady.

In Arizona, Amelia Horse sits inside her hogan, a traditional Navajo dwelling. She remembers a time when she could “scratch the ground” to produce water for her sheep — that is, before the decades-long drought currently plaguing the Southwest.

DigDeep worked closely with St. Bonaventure and Arviso, and it also cultivated close relationships with the residents of the Navajo Nation. "The entire Navajo Water Project is Indigenous-led from top to bottom," says McGraw. "That really is everything. It's the key to long-term sustainability for these projects. We're building off-grid systems at people's homes, and those systems will be owned by those homeowners and maintained and upgraded by them. Our projects last a long time only if people feel a sense of ownership and participation.

"But it's also a way to right the wrong that caused the problem initially. These communities were left out of the decision making about water in the beginning. So first and foremost, engaging impacted communities around this work, giving them agency and power back, and letting them make these decisions is a way to right that wrong."

Of course, members of Rotary are familiar with that approach, which they employ globally in all their projects, many of which involve water and sanitation. So perhaps it was inevitable that DigDeep and the Navajo would before too long find a committed ally in Rotary.

In 2016, members of the Rotary Club of Gilbert attended a water conference in Phoenix, and one of the presenters was DigDeep. Its representative explained the organization's work in the Navajo Nation, and how it was bringing water to the people living there.

DigDeep's method is ingeniously simple. It begins with an explanatory visit by DigDeep project managers to the home of the family it's assisting. The next morning, DigDeep delivers a 1,200-gallon cistern, which is then buried outside the home (so the water won't freeze). Technicians plumb a sink, water heater, filter, and drain line; where families don't have electricity, which is often the case, they install a solar panel, battery array, and electrical hookup to provide electricity to power the pump and lights. A tanker truck arrives and fills the cistern with clean water through an above-ground valve, and the homeowner receives training to operate, maintain, and repair the system, as well as a number to call should they encounter problems. All that unfolds over 24 hours.

The culminating moment occurs when everyone gathers around the sink, the faucet is turned on, and fresh water pours out, a moment often accompanied by the shedding of tears. "It can be really emotional," explains Emma Robbins, who, after attending art school, living in Argentina, and running an art gallery in Chicago, returned to her people and now serves as the director of the Navajo Water Project. "The most impactful moment for me can be when there are Elders who have never had running water. It's really beautiful, and, in an indirect way, when somebody gets running water, especially an Elder, it helps us continue to thrive as a people and a culture."

The Gilbert Rotarians attending the DigDeep presentation learned another detail: each installation cost $4,500. Curt Ward explains what happened next: "Our members came back and said, 'What do you think? Could we raise 4,500 bucks and sponsor one of these tanks?'" The answer was a resounding yes — and things took off from there.

"I was just minding my own business, reading up on this stuff, when I got a call from a Rotarian in our district who attends an annual friendship conference with District 4185 in Mexico," Ward recalls. The caller said there was "quite a bit of interest" among members of the Mexican district in co-sponsoring a global grant to support the Navajo Water Project. If the Gilbert club could raise $30,000, he was confident the members of Rotary in Mexico would match it.

"That was beyond the scope of our small club," Ward says. "But we could go around to other clubs in Phoenix's East Valley, describe the project, and see if we could stir up interest." He also reached out to Jim Bissonett, a member of the Rotary E-Club of the Southwest and the district's Rotary Foundation chair. (After a 2017 district merger, Ward's and Bissonett's clubs became part of the newly created District 5495.) Not only did Bissonett provide information about securing a global grant, he too became an ardent supporter of the project — a not-uncommon response. "You wouldn't believe how many people want to participate," Bissonett says. "Once we got a little publicity, we got calls from around the country. There was so much enthusiasm."

Other people of action emerged to make significant contributions and take leadership roles, including David Simmer, the 2019-20 governor of District 5495 — McGraw calls him a "champion" — and, in California, Rotary Club of Hollywood member Melody St. John, whom Simmer describes as the project's "fundraising diva." And members of Rotary from across the Southwest also leapt at the opportunity to take part. "The real story is, this is our backyard," says Bissonett, who particularly recalls the eagerness of Gary Whiting of the Rotary Club of Sun Lakes, Arizona, a past district governor, who said, "We want to do a project like that!"

Soon enough, they'd all get their chance — that is, until the unexpected intervened.

Stanley Holiday (left) and Donovan Smallcanyon fill water barrels for Gene Yazzie’s family near Tuba City.

In May 2018, the Rotary Club of Gilbert and its international partner in Mexico, the Rotary Club of San Andrés Cholula, launched the first phase of Rotary's participation in the Navajo Water Project. Backed by a $78,000 global grant, they provided home water systems for 18 families — that's 64 individuals — near Thoreau. A year later, Whiting and the Sun Lakes club finally got their chance when they partnered with the Rotary Club of Brantford-Sunrise, Ontario, and completed a second phase; also set near Thoreau, it provided home water systems to 33 families — that's more than 100 individuals — with the support of a $144,000 global grant.

Exactly as Jim Bissonett had seen, word spread and enthusiasm among members of Rotary for the Navajo Water Project grew exponentially. That's when St. John came on board, coursing through California like a mountain freshet and raising interest in the project, and the money to support it, at an unprecedented rate. When she was done, St. John, the 2019-20 governor of District 5280, had helped secure a significant portion of another round of funding, which included cash contributions from 56 clubs, as well as District Designated Funds from 13 districts in six countries.

"We actually had to shut down the funding on the grant" because so many people wanted to contribute, says Simmer. At the time, in the fall of 2019, Simmer's zeal was exceeded only by his optimism. "We will soon be working on the next grant in the series, the fourth in what may turn out to be 12 to 20 grants to work on this problem in the Navajo Nation."

The final tally for the third global grant for the Navajo Nation totaled $395,000; its international partner was the Rotary Club of Mérida-Itzaes, Mexico, and its host club was the Rotary Club of Four Peaks (Fountain Hills), Arizona — though, due to St. John's efforts, participants considered the project as "jointly hosted" by Districts 5495 and 5280. (Erica Gwynn, the manager of The Rotary Foundation's water, sanitation, and hygiene area of focus, also singled out for praise the thorough community assessment conducted in the preliminary stages of this third phase of the project.) The grant would provide home water systems for about 80 Navajo families near Dilkon, Arizona, and nine systems had been installed by early 2020. That's when the pandemic struck, and everything shut down.

Well, not everything. Due to strict quarantine restrictions, DigDeep could no longer interact directly with residents of the Navajo Nation, but it still had a job to do. "For the first 18 months of the pandemic, we had to pivot to emergency water work," McGraw says. "We delivered more than a million gallons of water and set up temporary water access tanks at almost 1,500 homes." About a fifth of those 275-gallon tanks were funded by members of Rotary, who, according to Curt Ward, "peeled off" $75,000 of the grant money to provide interim pandemic relief.

A water hauling station in Tuba City.

"It was amazing how available these Rotary folks were," says McGraw, "not getting lost in their own fear for themselves and their families, but asking, 'How can we help the people that are the most vulnerable?' Those champions of ours really went to bat for us and were able to make some of the dollars a little flexible and extend timelines a little. But the thing that really stands out was the level of availability and communication at a time when it was tough to get in touch with anybody."

And now DigDeep had another ingenious idea, although one sadly inspired by loss: the death in May 2020 of Ernest Largo, a member of the Navajo Water Project and another casualty of the pandemic in Navajo Nation. "It really shook the organization to its core," McGraw remembers, but the loss inspired the team to find a way to continue working.

Desperate, like other members of the team, to get back to work despite the quarantine, DigDeep water technician Kenneth Chavez had an idea. He recalled a winter night he had spent on his land in Navajo Nation. He'd brought some bottled water, and when he awoke the next morning he remembered he'd left it outside in his car. He went to retrieve it, fully expecting to find it frozen, but when he opened the suitcase where he had packed it, he found the bottled water nestled among his clothes, unfrozen.

Soon, DigDeep was employing a heated "suitcase" as a temporary adjunct to its home water system, an above-ground, outdoor unit connected to the underground cistern that allowed homeowners access to water without worrying that it would freeze. Now DigDeep, again with an assist from Rotary, was able to resume installation of the water systems without entering homes — and the systems could be easily upgraded to in-home systems when the impact of the pandemic diminished. That's exactly what began to happen earlier this year, and Bissonett is hopeful that Phase 3 of Rotary's involvement in the Navajo Water Project can be completed by spring 2023.

As for Ward, he remains as committed to working with the Navajo as when he first learned about water poverty in the Southwest. "You can't walk away from it," he insists. And Robbins, who has worked closely with Ward, looks forward to continuing her partnership with him and with Rotary. "I love it when Navajos are doing work for Navajos," she says, "but it's also important for us to have strong allies and advocates. And that's what Rotary has been for us."

“These communities were left out of the decision making about water.”

Shanna Yazzie stands near water tanks that will be delivered to homes in the Navajo Nation.

I first learned about Rotary's involvement with DigDeep and the Navajo Water Project in September 2019 when David Simmer visited RI headquarters in Evanston, Illinois. Like everybody who hears about the project, I was immediately and immensely interested, and I followed up Simmer's visit with a long telephone conversation with George McGraw and an exchange of emails with Emma Robbins. I wanted to visit the Navajo Nation and report this story on site, and they advised me to come the following spring when the heat would not be so intense.

I made plans to fly into Albuquerque, New Mexico, in April and drive for several days to see for myself what DigDeep, Rotary, and the Navajo had accomplished near Thoreau and Dilkon. As it happened, Melody St. John had plans to be out there at the same time, as did McGraw and Robbins. Most important, Robbins promised I'd have the opportunity to meet and speak with the Navajo families who had benefited, or were about to benefit, from the project.

We all know what happened — or didn't happen — next. Since then, I've been viewing everything that's been going on in the Navajo Nation from a distance. Like everyone else, I suppose, I assumed the pandemic would be short-lived, and when that proved not to be the case, I let this story sit dormant for a spell. And then, with the pandemic well into its second year, I began to report the story again: conducting long interviews by phone; studying maps; and reading through global grant applications, the ancillary reports and studies that Curt Ward sent me, and a half dozen books about Navajo history and culture.

Ward and Jim Bissonett and others sent me snapshots of the work on the Navajo Water Project that had been conducted near Thoreau before the pandemic. I studied them closely, though I was more intrigued by the photos they sent me of the desert, the red buttes and mesas, and the two separate photos of brightly painted graffiti from the Navajo Nation: the words WATER IS LIFE in large, colorful letters. Or as the Diné — the Navajo — would say it, tó éí ííná át'é.

I already had a limited sense of the place, especially from a four-day hike I'd made years earlier through the rugged Paria River canyon, following and, for the first two days, wading through that waterway from a remote point in Utah until it spilled 38 miles later into the Colorado River in Arizona, right up against the northwestern border of the Nation. Along the way, I'd seen petroglyphs of human figures and half-familiar animals that had been carved high up on a wall of red Navajo sandstone more than 100 years before Columbus was born.

But this wasn't enough, and I pressed everyone I spoke to with one question: What's it like in Navajo Nation? "Intense and very beautiful," says McGraw, "a place of extremes." I asked Robbins what it was like to grow up there, and after dismissing my question with a laugh — "What's it like to grow up in Chicago? Or Beverly Hills? Or Kentucky?" — she went on to rhapsodize the desert and the rock formations, the canyons and the dinosaur tracks, the juniper and piñon trees that grow at higher elevations. "There's no other place in the United States like it," she says. "Oh my gosh, it's so beautiful. I'm so lucky to be from here."

Lake Mead in Nevada is the primary source of drinking water for about 25 million people. It was created in the 1930s by damming the flow of the Colorado River — but lately the level of water in the lake has fallen to historic lows.

I was grateful for all of this. Some of the gaps in the story were filling in, but something was missing, something I thought I'd never get to see: the moment when the water is turned on. Then I got a gift in the form of a URL link.

In spring 2018, a film crew and reporter for the PBS NewsHour had traveled to New Mexico to file a story about the lack of water in

Navajo Nation and the efforts by DigDeep to ameliorate that. Some of the Rotarians who had been raising funds for McGraw and his team were invited to come up and lend a hand, and several traveled to Thoreau to assist in the installation of a water system in the small home that Tina Bicenti shared with her five children.

The seven-minute report, which aired 20 June 2018 — it's still online, if you want to take a look — begins with Darlene Arviso driving her big yellow St. Bonaventure tanker truck across the desert, so I finally get to see the Water Lady in action. Bicenti's yard is swarming with men and women in yellow T-shirts and other Rotary garb. Among them are Curt Ward and Jim Bissonett, who says, "We're going to change the lives of this family dramatically from the water they were carrying in pickle jars to their house to actually having running water."

Annie Begay, a 23-year-old field coordinator for DigDeep who, like Robbins, had grown up in the Nation, tightens the last screws on a rooftop solar panel. Inside the home, Bicenti flips a switch and hollers, "Lights! We have power!" Everyone gathers around the kitchen sink, including ginger-haired George McGraw, looking boyish, despite the mustache, and holding one of Bicenti's twin 6-month-old girls. Bicenti twists a faucet and water gushes into the silver sink. The big, bright smiles around the room outshine the newly installed electric lights, and Bicenti's preteen son wipes a tear from one eye. He's wearing an electric-blue T-shirt, and in big white and yellow letters it shouts: MY TIME IS NOW.

This story originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.