Distillations: Clean water in the Navajo Nation

Fresh water is something that many of us take for granted. But for Carmen George and Brianna John, it’s not a trivial thing. They’re working to bring clean water to the Navajo reservation through Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment. We chatted with them on day two of our annual meeting where the theme is Future of the Planet.

This episode was produced by Shane M Hanlon and mixed by Collin Warren. Artwork by Olivia Ambrogio. Interview conducted by Laura Krantz.


Shane Hanlon:              00:00                Hi, Vicky.

Vicky Thompson:           00:00                Hi, Shane.

Shane Hanlon:              00:02                What is the most environmentally conscious thing you’ve ever done? I know we’re just starting off with just small things.

Vicky Thompson:           00:09                Yeah, just small things. Well I don’t know if it’s the most environmentally conscious thing I’ve ever done, but I carry my own bamboo cutlery and reusable straw set around. I feel like that’s a good thing to do. What about you?

Shane Hanlon:              00:24                Yeah, those single-uses are no good.

Vicky Thompson:           00:27                Right.

Shane Hanlon:              00:28                For me, and I can’t really take credit for this, but when my now wife and I bought our house a couple years ago, it was move-in ready. But literally, the first thing we did to it was install solar panels.

Vicky Thompson:           00:45                Oh, that’s great.

Shane Hanlon:              00:45                Yeah, and that wasn’t actually the plan. This is something we really wanted to do but we moved in and there happened to be a co-op going on in our neighborhood where a bunch of residents got together and they did all of the vetting and select the contractors and all of that.

Vicky Thompson:           00:58                Oh.

Shane Hanlon:              00:58                And so she actually just signed up for this LISTSERV or this email list, thinking, “Oh, yeah, this will be great, something we want to do eventually.” And evidently we came in at the, “Okay, we’ve decided on everything.”

Vicky Thompson:           01:09                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              01:09                “Now it’s time to go stage.” And we went, “Someone vetted this for us.”

Vicky Thompson:           01:16                “Might as well, I guess. It’s great”

Shane Hanlon:              01:20                Yeah, it’s pretty cool, and something, yeah, again, we probably would have done eventually, but the timing just worked out really well.

Vicky Thompson:           01:26                Perfect.

Shane Hanlon:              01:31                Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists for everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon.

Vicky Thompson:           01:41                And I’m Vicky Thompson.

Shane Hanlon:              01:42                And this is Third Pod From The Sun. Okay, so it’s day two of our special series, our special, I guess not-so-live series from our annual meeting. And the theme of today is Future of the Planet.

Vicky Thompson:           02:00                Future of the Planet, not heavy or anything just a really light topic.

Shane Hanlon:              02:04                Yeah. Yeah, totally easy to figure all of this out in this 10 to 15 minute podcast we’re going to do. But opposed to our own personal small but mighty actions, we’re going to hear from someone who thinks about this as part of their job in a much more substantial way. We’re going to hear from Carmen George.

Vicky Thompson:           02:26                Great, let’s hear it.

Carmen George:            02:30                My name is Carmen George and I am the MEQ and Research Manager for Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment/Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Brianna John:                02:42                My name is Brianna John, I am a research assistant at Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. So, the Navajo reservation, it encompasses the four corners area, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. And there’s roughly about 150,000 people living on the Navajo reservation right now. And it’s about the size of West Virginia. And within that area there’s only, currently, 13 grocery stores. So that’s something that we thought was really interesting and we wanted to look further into in terms of food access, food accessibility for people living on the Navajo reservation.

Carmen George:            03:27                So the Navajo reservation, we do have rivers and we have a lot of underground water. And so we do have water available, but with the historical mining and extraction of minerals, a lot of that water has been contaminated. And so while there is water on the reservation, you don’t see it. Much of it has been contaminated by mining.

Laura Krantz:                03:56                Uranium mining, right?

Carmen George:            03:57                Yes. But we do get our water source is from some of those underground water, plus the river. And so that’s where we get our water from.

Laura Krantz:                04:11                How easy is it to get water in these areas?

Carmen George:            04:14                I would say, I think the estimated access to plumbing or public water system is about 70% of people on the reservation have that. So there is still 30% of homes that don’t have plumbing. And so what they usually do is they’ll go to their local chapter house or a local water source to get water. But sometimes people, they can’t afford it, too, so they’ll go to livestock wells and they’ll use well water. And a lot of those well waters are contaminated and so people will still access and drink that water.

Laura Krantz:                04:59                And are they aware that it’s polluted?

Carmen George:            05:04                There have been studies where they have shown that the water is polluted. But it’s also important to remember in the Navajo or diné culture, water is a sacred and living being. And so, when we have done focus groups and talked to communities about their water source, a lot of them think it’s important how you speak about water and speak to water. Because however you speak about water, yeah, they might use the water that is for live stock and might be contaminated, but to them they want to think positive about it. And that’s what they put into their bodies. But yeah, they do, sometimes if that’s the last resort, or they don’t have anyone to get water from, then they’ll use those contaminated water sources.

Laura Krantz:                05:58                Yeah. What are some of the other big concerns about water in that area?

Carmen George:            06:06                I think for us, as we’re working in promoting health, we started working to increase access to healthy fruits and vegetables on the Navajo nation, so working with stores and trying to increase access there so that it’s available when people shop. But along with promoting healthy eating, we also feel it’s important what people are drinking, and so to consider that as well.

                                    06:41                And so, we’ve been working to promote healthy beverages, so, having people choose water over sugary drinks. And so, it’s something that’s a challenge because if people have to work really hard to get water, then buying soda or buying sugary drinks is easier and more accessible at times for families. And so we’re just trying to work to promote drinking water in homes. And so, as we’re working with that, a lot of the times the families, they don’t feel their water is safe. And that comes from the historical, I guess, perspectives.

Laura Krantz:                07:27                How do you encourage people to get over this fear of water? Because it’s one thing to test the water, but if you see that the water is contaminated that’s still going to push you in the direction of maybe sugary drinks. Because at least you know that those have passed some safety standard.

Carmen George:            07:46                I think the way that I see it, it’s really important and that’s why we integrate the cultural aspect. Because with Navajo we have clans and so, when we say our clans and talk about our clans, a lot of our clans are rooted in water. And then, just in ceremony you use water there. And so, just trying to teach the young children about respecting water and having that sacredness towards water. I feel like that’s important in promotion because then you know water can be healing, too. And water can help you.

                                    08:37                And that’s the basis of this. If you choose water over sugary drinks you’re less likely to develop chronic disease. And so I think that’s really important to teach that traditional aspect. And so in that, while you’re teaching about tradition, science, what they can do empowerment, I think all these pieces in healthy eating can lead to healthier future for children. But that’s my perspective.

Laura Krantz:                09:12                So you’re also working on community trust here, in addition to alleviating some of the problems that have been caused. Is that been a big obstacle for you or do you find that people are willing to accept the information you’re giving them and are open to it?

Brianna John:                09:28                For me, when I went out into the field with the students and the mentors, it was just really neat. I feel like because they’re students and youths wanting to learn, then people were more open to let them test their water. They were like, “Sure.” But if I went, it’d probably be a different story. It would probably be a little harder and I’d have to explain a lot of things. But because it was the youth and their curiosity, and they’re approaching the community first, then I feel like it was more accepted. And then now, I’m curious when they give those two-pagers back.

                                    10:21                So we really value giving information back to the people and not just keeping it for ourselves. And so that’s what we want to instill, too, is if you do any type of research, sampling, you need to give it back to who it belongs to and who you took it from. And so we’re trying to also help instill that. So I’m really curious when they go back and they give the two-pagers and the results to the people, how that will be recepted or received. But we haven’t done that, yet.

Carmen George:            11:04                I think like Brianna mentioned, there is just one public water utility company on the Navajo Nation. And so I know that they work really hard to ensure that the water is safe for consumers to drink. And so, I think we purchase a lot of water off reservation, and so we’ll purchase some from cities over. And so that’s where we get our water from. As far as cleaning it up, I know there are different, probably universities, that are trying to find ways, well affordable ways, to clean up arsenic in water.

                                    11:49                And so I don’t think there is anything being done right now that I know of where they’re cleaning it or putting it through any type of process. Because it’s usually a really expensive process, I think they’re trying to find ways to do it at a lower cost. But for now, I haven’t heard of anything being done about it. And pretty much where we come in is more on the health and education piece.

                                    12:21                And when we did this project, the homes that we tested drinking water from, all of them were safe. And so I think if we did find one that wasn’t safe, first we would reach out to the public water utility company. There is groups out there that help with plumbing, in organizations. But yeah, right now, we didn’t find any place that was really contaminated as far as home. My dream would be, as far as if we think about water, and there was no limit to clean up the water, to really be able to have a plant out there that could clean up the water and give people confidence in water. I think people need to have a clean community water system, too.

                                    13:29                And so, like I said, there are families that can’t afford it or they don’t have a place to go to get water, so they use livestock water. If they had a better place and a cleaner place, I feel like that would be good. We got a little bit of funding from Nalgene to do a community water project. And so, what we’re trying to do is trying to find a place. It could be at a store, at a church, at a school, somewhere where people can go to get their water.

                                    14:05                And so we’re trying to do a community water system. And during COVID on Navajo Nation, they had established some community water locations but I think it got expensive and they’re not doing that anymore. But I feel like things like that would really benefit people that need it. And so that would be good to just have places on the Navajo Nation. Because the Navajo Nation has 110 communities. So within each community, if there was one place that people could get clean water, then I feel like that would be really helpful.

                                    14:50                And so I feel like that would be good, education, just having students learn about water. And of course, the traditional and cultural aspects, making sure that is being taught and respected. And then there are a lot of studies on the Navajo Nation as far as water, water quality. But making sure that those are being communicated back to the people, I feel like that is really important. And so, if money was no object, to make sure that everyone knows where their water source is and then what their readings are at home, what can be done, drink tap water if they’re able to. Those, I think are really important.

Vicky Thompson:           15:50                So Shane, are you inspired to be a better steward of the planet?

Shane Hanlon:              15:54                Yeah. I’m happy personally, about our solar panels, but sure, I recognize that we could all be doing probably a little more.

Vicky Thompson:           16:02                Yeah. I’d like to start composting.

Shane Hanlon:              16:05                Yeah. I will say we have a compost bin that we’re not very good at.

Vicky Thompson:           16:12                Yeah, that’s what happens to me, I always have false starts. But one day I want to …

Shane Hanlon:              16:19                Maybe you and-

Vicky Thompson:           16:19                … do well-

Shane Hanlon:              16:19                … I could make a joint New Year’s resolution to be composting in the new year.

Vicky Thompson:           16:24                Yeah, we could check in with each other on it. That’s great.

Shane Hanlon:              16:27                There we go, perfect. We’ll hold each other accountable.

Vicky Thompson:           16:29                Yeah.

Shane Hanlon:              16:30                And so with that and everyone on this podcast hearing that, please don’t hold us to that.

Vicky Thompson:           16:35                No.

Shane Hanlon:              16:37                That’s all from Third Pod From The Sun.

Vicky Thompson:           16:41                Special thanks to Laura Crance for conducting the interview, and to you, Shane for producing the episode. Audio engineering was by Colin Warren, with artwork by Olivia Ambrogio.

Shane Hanlon:              16:50                If you’d like to see video for at least part of this interview, you can head over to YouTube and search for AGU TV.

Vicky Thompson:           16:57                We’d love to hear your thoughts. Please write and review the podcast and you can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodfromthesun.com.

Shane Hanlon:              17:06                Thanks all, and we’ll see you tomorrow.


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