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).
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?
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.
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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.
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