Many Native Americans Can't Get Clean Water, Report Finds A new report from DigDeep and the U.S. Water Alliance found race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access. This has implications for public health.

Many Native Americans Can't Get Clean Water, Report Finds

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For many of us, turning on the tap or flushing the toilet is something we take for granted. But a report released today shows more than 2 million Americans live without these conveniences, and Native Americans are more likely to have trouble accessing water than any other group. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales reports from the Four Corners region of the Navajo Nation.

LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: The nearest water station for Darlene Yazzie is 9 miles away.


MORALES: She counts her dimes and nickels to pay for water. It costs a little more than a dollar plus gas money to fill up two 50-gallon barrels, and she's just been told the price is going up next month.

DARLENE YAZZIE: I can't see. There it goes.

MORALES: Yazzie lugs a T-shaped key as tall as her out to the well, where she drops it down into the hole and turns the crank to open the valve.


MORALES: I think I just got sprayed.

YAZZIE: Where is it?

MORALES: Right on top.


MORALES: Water gushes into the plastic barrel. A cool mist from a leak in the hose rains over us. This is Yazzie's drinking water. For her animals, she drives to a windmill. But today it's empty and the sheep are thirsty.

YAZZIE: There's no water in the windmill. It's dry because it's not blowing. The only way they have water is if it's blowing.

MORALES: Yazzie says the windmill water isn't safe for humans anyway. Officials told her arsenic and uranium levels are too high. Yazzie and many others give the water to their animals, even though they plan to eat them.

YAZZIE: A lot of people died of cancer around here. Then I noticed that more are being diagnosed. I'm pretty sure it's because of the environment and the water.

MORALES: The ground water in some areas has been contaminated by the more than 500 abandoned uranium mines. And a new report called Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States points out gastric cancer rates doubled in the 1990s where uranium mining occurred. The EPA says unregulated drinking water sources are the greatest public health risk on the Navajo Nation. Across the country, 44 million people are served by water systems that recently had Safe Drinking Water Act violations.

GEORGE MCGRAW: We knew that the problem was much bigger. But when we went out to look at the data, it didn't exist.

MORALES: George McGraw is the founder of DigDeep, a nonprofit that has helped build water systems on the Navajo Nation.

MCGRAW: No one could tell us, from federal to state agencies to other nonprofits, just how many Americans still don't have running water or a working toilet and where they lived.

MORALES: So McGraw commissioned experts from around the country to piece together the data they did have and come up with the water gap report. What he found was race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access. A century ago, water-borne illnesses were a leading cause of death. The U.S. government invested in modern water and sanitation systems and nearly eradicated those diseases. But some communities were passed over.

MAHRINAH VON SCHLEGEL: Our nations didn't have access to funding for infrastructure in the same way that it's federally allocated for cities and states overall.

MORALES: Mahrinah von Schlegel is an anthropologist from San Ildefonso Pueblo in New Mexico. She says in the Southwest, it's expensive to build pipelines across such remote, sparsely populated tribal nations.

VON SCHLEGEL: It's been a struggle, one, to get the access to that infrastructure capital. And then, two, it's really expensive to develop some of these remote areas.

MORALES: Today federal funding for water infrastructure is a small percentage of what it once was. The Indian Health Service estimates it would cost $200 million to provide basic water and sanitation access on the Navajo Nation.

For NPR News, I'm Laurel Morales.


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