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Westwater Needs Water

For Immediate Release: February 18, 2020
Contact – Alastair Lee Bitsóí: (917) 202-8308


SALT LAKE CITY – Just west of the City of Blanding, Diné (Navajo) children and elderly have no access to running water or electricity in their homes, and are forced to haul water sometimes spending about $150 per month from outside sources. Contrast this to homes in Blanding, one block away, where many citizens enjoy washing machines, dishwashers, and refrigeration of food as so-called “modern luxuries.” This stark socioeconomic difference exists in 2020, and in Utah, headquarters of the wealthiest-of-all charitable institutions in the United States, this plight remains as the living conditions of 29 families who call Westwater, Utah, home. 


Westwater is a stark example given its location adjacent to one of Blanding’s wealthiest neighborhoods, but it is hardly unique. Approximately 40% of the population (4,000 people) of Native Americans living in San Juan County lack running water in their homes.


 “It does not make sense for us to not have water or electricity in our community,” explains Evangeline Gray, a board member of Utah Diné Bikéyah and a citizen of Westwater, who meets monthly with Diné citizens at Westwater Diné Community meetings to talk about their community needs. “We need water for our people in Westwater.”

 
This week, Gray is advocating for her community at the Utah Legislature, to ensure that $500,000 in appropriations is prioritized in the state budget to finally bring basic water and utility services to her community. According to Larry Echohawk, who has been appointed by Gov. Gary Herbert to advise his administration on Indian Affairs, the appropriations request to the Utah Legislature is listed as a line-item in Gov. Herbert’s budget. Westwater development is described in four-phases at an estimated $3.3 million.

 
“I’m hopeful the legislature will approve this, and we can move on to eventually provide electricity and water, and let these citizens live the way most of the citizens of Utah live,” added Echohawk, who provided two-minute testimony to the Executive Offices and Criminal Justice Subcommittee last week with Rep. Phil Lyman.


Utah Diné Bikéyah’s Economic Development Director, Dave Conine, is working with the community and all stakeholders to determine if these funds could be allocated toward community ownership models to include modern technologies in solar electricity and micro-wastewater treatment facilities, instead of looking at the expense of pulling electrical power lines and constructing roads from the Navajo Nation, installing leech fields, and sending community dollars out of state to monopolistic corporations.


“The Governor’s budget request is proving to be the catalyst to bring various parties together offering technical expertise, additional funding possibilities and the extensive cooperation necessary to actually complete the project,” added Conine. “Access to basic utility services Americans take for granted will improve the health, safety and general welfare of Westwater residents, and result in progress toward reducing the intergenerational poverty that affects all of San Juan County.”


Westwater is a community of Diné citizens, who live on 120 acres of “fee simple” land. While owned by the Navajo Nation, fee simple land is essentially private lands with property taxes going to San Juan County to provide services. This is different from “trust” land which is untaxed, and “reserved” from appropriation by the United States government to remain under the full-control of our country’s original inhabitants (Indigenous/Native people.) In this case, the lack of water and utilities in this community often creates jurisdictional issues of which government stakeholder is required to provide services to this community.

 
It is part of the reason Rep. Phil Lyman is leading the effort among his peers in the Utah Legislature.

 
“It is hard because (Westwater) is not in the city limits,” Lyman said about efforts to provide water and utilities to Westwater residents. “Its land owned by the Navajo Nation, but it is not reservation lands. As much as the city of Blanding would love to go and provide services, they do not have the money to do that themselves. The county has tried to step in and do some things. It’s expensive. We need bigger players than what we have there locally, so the state is stepping-in and the governor’s office. It really provides a conduit for others to help if they want to help, including the city and county.”

 
As of now, the appropriations request is moving through the Utah Legislature, with stops to the Executive Appropriations Committee, the approval both the House and Senate, before being signed by Gov. Herbert. Along with the Utah Legislature and Gov. Herbert, the Utah Navajo Trust Fund and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer support this effort.

 
WHO: Westwater Diné Community, and Utah Diné Bikéyah community members from San Juan County, Utah.

 
WHAT: A $500,000 Appropriations Request circulating through the Utah Legislature.

 
WHERE/WHEN: Utah State Capitol on Thursday and Friday.


WHAT CAN CITIZENS DO: Donate to Utah Diné Bikéyah, and list “Water to Westwater” in the donation field called, “Notes.” One hundred percent (100%) of funds collected for this purpose will directly support the Westwater community, and connecting them to utility services.  https://utahdinebikeyah.org/contribute/.


Media representatives can interview Westwater community leaders Evangeline Gray, Pamela King, and Albert Cly at the Utah State Capitol about the water needs of Westwater, Utah on Thursday and Friday this week. Please call Alastair Bitsóí, communications director for UDB, for details.


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