STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The average person in the United States uses about 100 gallons of water per day. That's according to the EPA. In much of the Navajo Nation, a person uses much less - 7 gallons per day to drink and cook and bath. Many tribal members have to haul that water in barrels from miles away. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ reports on one person trying to help them. She's known as the water lady.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The people who live in the northwest corner of New Mexico consider Darlene Arviso to be a living saint.
DARLENE ARVISO: Everybody knows me around here. They'll be waving at me
MORALES: Are you famous?
MORALES: Are you the water lady? What do they call you?
ARVISO: Yes, they call me the water lady - konayehe.
MORALES: Arviso, with her long silver braid, sits behind the wheel of the Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission water truck, dodging large boulders and gullies. Most of the roads are unpaved on the Navajo Nation, the country's largest reservation. Arviso drives to 250 homes a month, filling their plastic barrels, buckets, jars and whatever containers the families have. When people see the giant yellow truck coming down the road, Navajo member Georgianna Johnson says it's like they've seen Santa coming down the chimney.
GEORGIANNA JOHNSON: You know what we do? - the water truck's coming, get the buckets ready. (Laughter). We get all happy. Today is the day I'm going to take a bath.
MORALES: Johnson helps her 76-year-old grandmother pull her freshly washed hair back in a bun and put on her beaded jewelry. Grandma Lindsay Johnson beams like a young girl because the water lady has just filled her barrels.
LINDSAY JOHNSON: We cook with it and we wash our face with it. We take a bath with it and everything.
GEORGIANNA JOHNSON: Water's got to do with everything. Yeah. Actually, it really does. To wash the dishes, my aunt tells us the rinsing water is still clean. She said use that the next time when you're going to wash dishes. That's how we, like, make the water stretch.
MORALES: About 40 percent of the Navajo Nation has to make their water stretch. The water here in Smith Lake comes from the Saint Bonaventure Indian Mission well about 50 miles away. But the once-a-month water truck deliveries are far from the perfect solution. The roads often become impassable in the winter and barrels run dry. Many resort to melting snow or collecting water from livestock basins. So the mission has sought help from George McGraw, a Los Angeles-based human rights lawyer and the founder of a nonprofit called DIGDEEP. It provides water systems to developing countries.
GEORGE MCGRAW: It really is an incredible injustice if you're born Navajo, you know, you're 67 times more likely not to have a tap or a toilet in your house than if you were born black, white, Asian or Hispanic American.
MORALES: After several surveys, McGraw's team found clean water 1,800 feet below the surface and will begin digging a well this spring. Once DIGDEEP raises enough money, it will pipe the water to people's homes. The water lady herself, Darlene Arviso, laughs when she recalls the day she got running water 15 years ago.
ARVISO: We were all happy seeing the water, and we let our water run for like five minutes, like, in the restroom and then in the kitchen.
MORALES: Arviso is the only one in her whole extended family with running water, so her sisters, her four adult children and grandchildren all come to her house to shower, do laundry and fill their water barrels. For NPR News I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.