Water in Diné Culture

Tó Éí Ííńá (Water is Life)

Water is considered sacred, and is commonly used by the Diné not only for consumption and agriculture, but also for ceremonial practices and medicine. The source of water is an important consideration in the Diné culture, as only water from natural sources may be used for ceremonial or medicinal practices. Mountain spring water is a key component of many Diné ceremonies because of its purity; tap water is considered impure and is therefore not an accepted substitute (Belinte, 2018).

However, historically, access to water has been limited not only by environmental factors, but also by legal frameworks. Below, we chronicle the past five decades of water rights restrictions affecting the Navajo Nation. 

Timeline of Recent Historic Water Events

In 1938, Texas, Colorado, and New Mexico signed the Rio Grande Contract, which called for a trans-mountain diversion that would transfer water to the Rio Grande Basin from the San Juan River. To satisfy the agreement, the State of New Mexico created the San Juan-Charma Diversion, a project that would “divert 100,000 acre-feet of water from the San Juan River… to the Rio Grande Basin” annually (Navajo Agricultural, 2018). Because the Navajo Nation had a substantial claim over the San Juan River water, the federal government guaranteed the reservation it would “deliver 508,000 acre-feet of water on an annual basis to 110,630 acres of farm land” in exchange for a portion of their claim (Navajo Agricultural, 2018). Thus, in 1957, the Navajo Tribal Council accepted the reduction of their rights to the San Juan River, and in 1964, the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP), the project the government promised, began construction. 

Image at left – The Navajo Nation separated by its basins. The Rio Grande Contract called for a diversion of San Juan River water to the Rio Grande Basin.

(© Photo by Navajo Nation Department of Justice)

The NIIP is an agricultural development project with the purpose of providing irrigation to 110,630 acres of San Juan River Basin farmland with full-sprinkler systems. The irrigation water is collected from the Navajo Reservoir through the Navajo Dam and then diverted through a series of canals to areas south of the San Juan River near Farmington, New Mexico (US Bureau of Reclamation, 2018). Land from the NIIP is farmed by the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry (NAPI), which was established by the Navajo Nation on April 16, 1970, to “create employment and operate a profitable Agri-business” (Navajo Agricultural, 2018). 

Image Below – Shown is a map of a portion of the Navajo Nation and its San Juan River Basin. Key locations to note are the Navajo Dam and Reservoir and the NIIP.

(© Map and Photos by Navajo Nation Department of Justice) 

The NIIP  facilities were to be constructed in eleven blocks, each of approximately 10,000 acres. However, to this day, four of the 10,000-acre blocks remain unconstructed and unirrigated, stalling NAPI farming development. The delay is due to a lack of funding from the federal government, and more specifically several budget cuts. Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Council Speaker Lorenzo Bates have said the “tribe will continue its efforts to lobby Congress for more funding” (Hopkins, 2016).

In 1964, Peabody Western Coal Company received approval from the Navajo tribal council, and two years later from the Hopi council, to mine in the Black Mesa region and use the Navajo Aquifer. The lease agreements granted the energy company several advantages, and despite widespread opposition, the Navajo and Hopi governments signed the contract. Opponents of the agreement deem the contract controversial because John Sterling Boyden, a prominent Utah attorney, represented the Hopi tribe at the signing of the contract while on the Peabody payroll (Dougherty, 1997). Other allegations describe misrepresentations made to the people of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, including the failure to explain the health hazards of working and living near a coal mine (Rowe, 2017).

At the heart of the Black Mesa controversy is one of the main Navajo aquifers, the N-aquifer. The Black Mesa mine, owned by Peabody, used the groundwater from the N-aquifer, the Navajo Nation’s primary water source, to transport extracted coal in a coal slurry through 273 miles of pipeline to the Mohave Generating Station (MGS) in Laughlin, Nevada. This process involves mixing pulverized coal with water and pushing it through pipes. At the time, Peabody used “4,600 acre-feet or 1.3 billion gallons of pristine groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer every year for coal transportation” (Begaye, 2005). 

Above Image – The route the coal slurry pipeline takes to reach the Mohave Generating Station from the Black Mesa Mine. The Navajo and Hopi reservations, major rivers, and the Black Mesa mine are indicated. 

(© Photo by Black Mesa Trust)

Naturally, the local Black Mesa community raised concerns about the environmental impact the coal slurry system would have on their only potable water source, and by 2000, Natural Resources Defense Council reported the N-aquifer’s serious decline. Groundwater depletion, material damage, and reduced water quality are some of the effects after years of pumping (Grabiel, 2006)

Image at right – Pictured is the coal slurry pipeline crossing through the Black Mesa region. At left bottom corner, there is a sign protesting, “3000 GALLONS PER MINUTE! GOT WATER?” referencing the large amounts of water pumped from the Navajo Aquifer.

(© Photo by Black Mesa Weavers for Life)

In 2002, the Navajo and Hopi Tribal Councils decided to discontinue its agreement with Peabody and “passed resolutions to end the use of N-aquifer water for slurry transportation by December of 2005” (Begaye, 2005). Around the same time, the Mohave Generating Station, the Black Mesa mine’s only client, scheduled to close since it did not meet air pollution control standards. Thus, on January 1, 2006, Peabody ceased operation of the Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline (Begaye, 2005).

Even though the closure of the Black Mesa mine can be considered a victory for preservation of the pristine N-aquifer, it also resulted in the unemployment of many Black Mesa residents. The controversy is complicated and touches on many subjects besides water-related issues. 

For more information on the Black Mesa controversy, including job security and the excavation of tribal ancestor burial grounds, please explore the cited links or the ones below to start.



The United Nuclear Corporation (UNC) resides in Rehoboth, New Mexico within the Navajo Nation borders. Their 125-acre site currently includes a former uranium ore processing mill and a tailings (ore residue) disposal area (“United Nuclear,” 2018). The uranium mill, located in Church Rock, NM, was operational from 1977-1982, and in the few years it ran, it marked the beginning of a series of water-related disasters for the residents of the Navajo Nation. 

Image Below – Pictured is the Rio Puerco (Puerco River) Basin. Notice on the upper right of the map, the Rio Puerco passes through Church Rock.

(© Map and Text by Southwest Research and Information Center)

On the morning of July 16, 1979, the dam of a tailings pond at the UNC’s Church Rock mill broke and released 94 million gallons of radioactive water along with 1,100 tons of uranium tailings into the Rio Puerco, which “eventually contaminated 80 miles of streambed”  (Shebala, 2009). The UNC responded by conducting a cleanup almost entirely with “buckets and shovels” since heavy equipment, like bulldozers, could not access the area where wastewater had collected (Ivins, 1979). However, the government did not declare a state of emergency or an evacuation. Instead, “both government and corporate officials emphasized that there [was] no immediate health hazard from the spill,” and the Navajo residents were simply “advised not to drink from, swim in or otherwise touch the river water” (Ivins, 1979).

Since the event, no government or private entity has conducted a formal investigation of the spill’s effects on the resident’s health. Nevertheless, the nearby population has reported higher cancer rates and several physical ailments, including “shortness of breath” and “blisters and sores on [the] feet and legs” from wading in the water years after the dam break. Unfortunately, there is yet to be a study to explain the health consequences of this 40-year-old uranium spill (Shebala, 2009).

In 1993, the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources (NNDWR) was established to “effectively plan, manage and protect this valuable resource,” (Showa, 1993), this valuable resource being water.  The NNDWR would become the department that dealt with all water management issues and attempted to focus more on the pressing water needs of the nation.

Since 1999, the American Southwest has been experiencing a drought and is likely to continue for many years. Lying at the heart of the Southwest, the Navajo Nation is heavily impacted by this climate change. Coupled by the “lack of infrastructure, the lack of economic development, and the sustained poverty”, the constant drought leaves the residents of the reservation especially vulnerable (Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, 2018). 

Image Below – Updated U.S. Drought Monitor map as of November 20, 2018. The map highlights the severity of drought in the Southwest region.

(© Map by Richard Heim NCEI/NOAA retrieved from the U.S. Drought Monitor)

Below are explanations of the drought categories listed on the above maps. All descriptions come from National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) website (National Centers, 2018):

  • D0 – experiencing “short-term dryness that is typical with the onset of drought.”
  • D1 – “damage to crops and pastures can be expected and where fire risk is high, while stream, reservoir, or well levels are low.”
  • D2 – “crop or pasture losses are likely, fire risk is very high, water shortages are common, and water restrictions are typically voluntary or mandated.”
  • D3 – “major crop and pasture losses are common, fire risk is extreme, and widespread water shortages can be expected requiring restrictions.”
  • D4 – “exceptional and widespread crop and pasture losses, fire risk, and water shortages that result in water emergencies.” 

Image at left – Pictured are the drought intensity ratings for the Navajo Nation region as of May 2018. Notice that most of the reservation is at the most severe drought category.

(© Map by U.S. Drought Monitor retrieved from NASA)

In response, the NNDWR developed the Drought Contingency Plan in 2003 to “improve the understanding of future drought impacts.” The plans’s broad objectives (Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, 2018are to:

  • “Provide an effective and systematic means of assessing drought conditions.”
  • “Develop mitigation actions and programs to reduce risk in advance of drought.”
  •  “Develop response options that minimize hardships during drought.”  

Overall, the Drought Contingency Plan has succeeded in collecting and communicating data relevant to the drought situation. An example of this is the Navajo Nation Drought Status Report released by the NNDWR’s Water Management Branch every month.

To understand the NNDWR’s efforts on behalf of the Drought Contigency Plan, explore the recent Navajo Nation Drought Status Reports

Nearly 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the Navajo Nation between 1944 and 1986. Since then, the abandoned mines have presented a high risk of uranium contamination to the reservation and its water. Thus, in October 2007, the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform inquired five federal agenciesthe United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy (DOE), and the Indian Health Service (IHS)to “develop a coordinated Five-Year Plan (2008-2012) to begin to address uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation” (“Federal Actions,” 2013).

Image Below – Pictured is a map depicting the abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation as of 2016. Some of these mines were subject to assessments and cleanups per the five-year plans.

(© Map by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

This first Five-Year Plan focused on the most urgent hazards to people living on the Navajo Nation. The Five-Year Plan (2008-2012) released on June 9, 2008, identifies the following objectives:

  • “Assessment of structures and water sources that are likely to be contaminated;
  • Cleanup of structures found to be contaminated above safe levels;
  • Provision of alternate water supplies for residents consuming contaminated water;
  • Tiered assessment of abandoned mines, with more detailed assessments of those most likely to pose environmental or health problems;
  •  Cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock mine site and additional high-priority abandoned mine sites;
  • Cleanup of the Tuba City Highway 160 site;
  • Cleanup of the Tuba City Dump;
  • Remediation of groundwater contamination at three former mill sites; and
  • Conduct of one or more case control studies of health risks faced by individuals residing near mill sites or abandoned mine sites.”

(“Health and Environmental,” 2008)

According to the Five-Year Plan Summary Report released in January 2013, the agencies made significant progress on all aspects of the plan and gained an “improved understanding of the scope of mine-impacted and
naturally occurring uranium on the reservation.”

Although the first Five-Year Plan (2008-2012) was an essential beginning, much work remains. The second Five-Year Plan (2014-2018) will continue the efforts.

The Five-Year Plan (2014-2018) prioritizes seven objectives which continue to be pursued today:

  • “Assessment and Cleanup of Contaminated Structures
  • Assessment of Contaminated Water Sources, and Provision of Alternative Water
  • Assessment of Abandoned Uranium Mines With Detailed Assessments of those
    Most Likely to Pose Environmental or Health Problems
  • Cleanup of the Northeast Church Rock Mine Site and Additional High Priority
    Abandoned Mine Sites
  • Tuba City Dump Site
  • Protection of Human Health and the Environment at Former Uranium Processing
  • Health Studies”

(“Federal Actions,” 2014)

In 2009, the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act was passed.  The act included the Northwestern New Mexico Water Projects Act which aimed to settle a long-standing water rights claim of the Diné within San Juan River Basin.  It also authorized construction of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project which was meant to bring a clean/sustainable water supply to many parts of the nation (Rush, 2009).  However, the pipeline takes much of its water from reservation sources and provides water to Gallup, a border town outside of the reservation, a source of contention from many Diné who felt their water was being wrongfully diverted (Gies, 2016).  The project includes the development and construction of two water treatment plants, 280 miles of pipeline, 24 pumping plants, and water regulation facilities to achieve its goals (Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, 2018).

In 2010, Congress approved the San Juan River Basin Settlement Agreement, although it continues to be challenged by the New Mexico State Legislature. The agreement was the product of more than 20 years of efforts to resolve the Navajo Nation’s water rights and defined the Navajo Nation claims to water from the Basin that were not implemented before 2010 (“San Juan River Water Settlement signed”, 2018). It allocated to the Navajo Nation about 600,000 acre-feet per year identified for agriculture, industrial, municipal, domestic, and stock watering purposes. Allocations under this included the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project (NIIP) of 1962 (“Navajo Nation Leaders,” 2018).

Image result for san juan river basin navajo nation

The image above is of the Navajo Nation and the San Juan River Basin (Earthzine, 2015).

The agreement detailed the claims the Nation could make over the San Juan River Basin and defined the amount of water that the Nation could claim from the Basin. (“Navajo Nation San Juan Basin in New Mexico Water Rights Settlement Agreement of 2010”, 2018)

Beginning mid-January in 2013, parts of Arizona experienced sub-freezing temperatures due to an arctic air mass. The unusually low temperatures led to damaged water infrastructure and frozen pipes which caused a water shortage affecting several indigenous groups, including the Navajo Nation. In response, Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, declared a State of Emergency in the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe effective January 12, 2013 (ADI NEWS, 2013).

By mid-February, “3000 homes lost water due to frozen and broken pipes.” Then on February 20, the 

Navajo Nation’s reservation-wide breakdown of water pipes was followed by the collapse of a section of Highway 89, south of Page, Arizona (pictured above). On February 24, the Navajo Nation declared the second state of emergency “relating to travel to schools and work in Page” (Minard, 2013).

(© Photo by Courtesy Photo/ADOT retrieved from Arizona Daily Sun News)

The Gold King Mine is located in the Upper Animas Watershed in Silverton, Colorado. Historically, the Animas River and its tributaries are impacted by “high concentrations of heavy metals from both acid rock/mine drainage at mine sites and from naturally occurring metal loading sources not impacted by mining” (“Gold King,” 2015).

This issue of high metal concentrations worsened on August 5, 2015. While excavating above a passage leading into the mine during an investigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidentally caused a spill of over three million gallons of toxic wastewater and 190 tons of heavy metals into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River, which ultimately feeds into the San Juan River (Diver, 2018). Three days later, the U.S. Geological Survey used a stream gauge to measure the flow of water from the mine site, which “resulted in a provisional calculated flow volume of 3,043,067 gallons discharged from the Gold King Mine” (“How Did,” 2016).

Image at left  – Pictured is the mouth of the Gold King Mine five days after the spill.

(© Photo by the Farmington, N.M. Daily Times file photo retrieved from USA Today News)

The Diné community took a heavy toll from the spill. The San Juan River’s contamination economically devastated the region, “which is the bread basket of the Navajo Nation,” said Karletta Chief, Assistant Professor of Soil, Water, and Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. She explains: “It also had a traumatic impact on people. They view the river as the male deity of the Navajo homeland. Seeing it turn yellow really devastated the people” (Diver, 2018).

Immediately after the incident, “about 400 private parties submitted requests for $318 million [in 2015 currency], citing lost wages and business income, ruined vacations, property damage, loss of property value and health problems” (Ruiz Leotaud, 2018). The claims against the EPA soon compiled to over $1.2 billion coming from local governments, companies, and individuals. On January 13, 2017, the EPA announced it would not pay the accumulated claims, as the Federal Tort Claims Act “prevents the agency from paying claims” if something goes wrong from “discretionary” action taken by its employees (Wegryzn, 2017).

However, a year later, on February 12, 2018, the Navajo Nation won a significant victory in its fight for fair compensation for the damage caused by the Gold King Mine spill. In 2018, the Navajo Nation’s claims of “negligence, trespass, and nuisance” were upheld by the US District Court of New Mexico, after Environmental Restoration LLC attempted to dismiss these claims (Navajo News, 2018). Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye responds to the court decision,“‘We will continue to fight for justice for the Navajo people and the Navajo Nation. Our people have suffered greatly and must be compensated fairly’” (Navajo News, 2018).

As described, it is apparent that the Gold King Mine Spill is evidence for the long-lasting water contamination in the Navajo Nation and the legal system’s indifference towards it.

 Above Image – At left, the Animas River merges into the San Juan River (at right) shortly after the Gold King Mine spill, resulting in the contamination of one of the Navajo Nation’s most important water sources.

(© Photo by the Farmington, N.M. Daily Times file photo retrieved from USA Today News)

After our research into Diné history, we began to explore the current status of the Navajo Nation region.  We analyzed Geographic Information System (GIS) data, demographic and water resources data, and current initiatives and discovered the problem is projected to keep getting worse.