After river disaster, Navajo doubts about pollution linger

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 3.25.24 PMSHIPROCK, New Mexico — Earl Yazzie hopes the rain will come, but even if it does, he knows it won’t make a difference. The corn won’t get big enough for people to eat, and the cantaloupes that don’t shrivel on the vine won’t ever be fit to see market.

“I had a hay field right over here,” said Yazzie, as he pointed to a barren plot of his land. “I had to plow that up because [there was] no water. I lost all that hay on that side. That’s just bare dirt now.”

The San Juan River nourishes Yazzie and his wife Cheryl’s farm. It feeds the alfalfa, makes the melons grow fat, and helps the corn get tall. But with lingering questions about what’s in the river, many Navajo farmers along the San Juan like the Yazzie family have opted to close their irrigation canals and stop watering their crops.

“The reason why I’m not using the water is because it’s contaminated,” said Yazzie. “I don’t want none of that contaminated water to be coming into my field.”

Yazzie’s remaining crops must be watered by hand using tap water — or other clean water delivered to his farm — a bucket, an old can to dole out much needed moisture, and a strong back to haul the water bucket back and forth from house to field.

For centuries, farmers and livestock producers living in the northeast corner of the Navajo Nation have relied on the San Juan River. But last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accidently spilled around 3 million gallons of wastewater into the Animas River from an abandoned gold mine in southern Colorado. The yellow-colored brew quickly moved heavy metals like lead and arsenic downstream into the San Juan and the Navajo Nation.

One month later, the EPA says the river has returned to pre-spill conditions, but many Navajo farmers are still wary of the water, and some, like Yazzie, have become downright defiant.

The primary issue at hand is access to information. Although the EPA has released its test results from the San Juan to the public to demonstrated its decent condition, the Navajo Nation’s own EPA has refused to release independent test results, due to a pending lawsuit against the federal government.

Both the EPA and the Nation say the San Juan is safe to use, but farmers are acutely distrustful of the federal government, while harboring fears that unpublicized Navajo tests could reveal something truly harmful.

“The Navajo Nation is just going by what the government is giving them,” said Lenora Williams. “But I don’t trust the government at this point.”

Williams is Vice President of the Navajo Nation’s Upper Fruitland Chapter House, one of several Navajo communities that have resumed using water from the San Juan. However, despite her role as a leader in a community now using the river again, Williams has opted to not use it until she can get more information herself.

“Emotionally, it does hurt, what happened to the water,” said Williams. “We’re going to have to deal with it, and we, as Navajos, Natives, we can’t sell our land and move on to another country. There’s no such thing for us.”

That kind of distrust has prompted independent investigators to arrive on the Nation. The EPA takes a sample of water or sediment when testing for contaminants, much like one takes a picture of a point in time. But advocates and activists say testing must be done over time.

“I wouldn’t farm until I knew exactly what was in the water,” Scott Smith of Water Defense said. “I would err on the side of caution.”

Water Defense is a nonprofit assisting Navajo citizens independently test the San Juan for contaminants. He says monitoring the river continuously yields better information, like taking a video instead of just a still image.

“You can imagine how much water has flowed through here the last 14 hours,” said Smith, as he pulled one of his monitors out of the river to take samples and ship to a lab. “If we’re showing up randomly and taking a split second sample from the surface, that’s really not indicative of what’s really in the water.”

The EPA declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview.

Meanwhile, farmers like Earl and Cheryl Yazzie continue to watch their crops die as the canals dry up.

“If you love your land, you’ll do anything for it and protect it, and that’s where me and my husband are,” said Cheryl. “We want to protect our land because we want to grow food. We want to have the organic food. We don’t want to go to the store and have to buy whatever over there. It means a lot to us.”

Read and watch the original report here.

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tristan ahtone

Tristan Ahtone is an award winning journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Born in Arizona and raised across the United States, he was educated at the Institute of American Indian Arts and the Columbia School of Journalism. He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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