On The Navajo Nation, Special Ed Students Await Water That Doesn't Stink Fundraising is underway for a new filtration system at an Arizona school for Navajo children with disabilities. Now, the water runs black and smells like rotten eggs, but is technically safe to drink.
NPR logo

On The Navajo Nation, Special Ed Students Await Water That Doesn't Stink

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/523303559/523631734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
On The Navajo Nation, Special Ed Students Await Water That Doesn't Stink

On The Navajo Nation, Special Ed Students Await Water That Doesn't Stink

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/523303559/523631734" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a third of the Navajo Nation lacks running water. And in some of the places with running water, people don't want to drink it. They say it smells, tastes funny and looks bad. Laurel Morales of member station KJZZ has more from Flagstaff, Ariz.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: On the Navajo Nation, kids with the most severe developmental disabilities attend a school called St. Michael's Association for Special Education.

FELENCIA WOODIE: Say hi. Oh.

MORALES: There he is. A little sleepy.

DAMEON DAVID: (Groaning).

WOODIE: (Unintelligible).

MORALES: Eight-year-old Dameon is waking up from a nap in his classroom. He has come to the school in northeastern Arizona for four years. He has cerebral palsy, seizures and scoliosis. His mom, Felencia Woodie, picks him up from a bed with Superman sheets.

WOODIE: Other schools that he was going to go to, they didn't have the nursing staff or the equipment he goes in or the trained staff that they have here to do his suctioning, his feeding and his medications daily.

MORALES: Woodie, who also works at St. Michael's, says the only problem with the school is its water.

WOODIE: Yeah, it has a certain stench to it. Sometimes you'll smell, like, kind of like a egg smell. Sometimes it's yellow, brown or even we've seen black.

MORALES: Black? Really?

WOODIE: Yes.

MORALES: Many of the kids at St. Michael's are medically fragile, so they have equipment that needs to be cleaned daily. The staff refuses to use the tap water to wash equipment. Instead they use five-gallon jugs of filtered water trucked in from many miles away.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING FAUCET)

MORALES: In another classroom, volunteer Jacob Lundy helps two young girls with autism wash their hands at the sink. The water runs yellow.

JACOB LUNDY: What's odd to me is how normal it becomes for the water in the laundry room to come out black. And that's just, like - we don't think about it anymore.

MORALES: In the sink, you can see the residue from the black water. It looks like sand. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority tests the water at St. Michael's monthly and says it meets national primary drinking water standards. It's not poisonous, but...

ADAM BRINGHURST: People typically won't drink water if it tastes bad or if it looks bad or if it stinks.

MORALES: Adam Bringhurst studies water resources at Northern Arizona University. He says the Environmental Protection Agency has established two levels of standards. The primary standard, filtering contaminants that harm your health, that's required by law. The secondary standard, eliminating taste, color and smell, that's voluntary.

BRINGHURST: And the secondary standards are typically considered aesthetics.

MORALES: But, Bringhurst says, those secondary standards are still very important.

BRINGHURST: We all need to drink water. And when your only option is to go to the store and pay really high prices that also carry a really big footprint with them, it's a bad situation for everyone.

MORALES: St. Michael's spent almost $3,000 last year on bottled water alone. That's a big cost for a school with so many expenses and one that a better water filtration system could alleviate. So a school volunteer contacted a group called Dig Deep, a nonprofit that digs wells and makes water accessible throughout the region. George McGraw heads Dig Deep and is especially concerned for the disabled kids.

GEORGE MCGRAW: These are people that rely on us, on their teachers, on their government officials, on society at large to make sure that their most basic needs are taken care of. And what's more basic than having access to clean running water?

MORALES: The organization is raising $100,000 to build a water filtration system for St. Michael's. It hopes to install it this summer so the water is more than just technically safe. It will be something kids and staff actually want to drink. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Morales in Flagstaff.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUSTAVO SANTAOLALLA'S "APERTURA")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.