Saving The Sacred Navajo Water

Nearly 250,000 residents live in the Navajo Nation, which spans sections of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. The area contains a strong mining presence, one that has led to dangerous spills and water contamination. Hydrologist Karletta Chief, who is a member of the Navajo Bitter Water Clan, discusses her work and how her personal relationship with those waterways influenced her pursuit of science.

TRANSCRIPT

NEARLY 250, 000 RESIDENTS LIVE IN THE NAVAJO NATION, WHICH SPANS SECTIONS OF UTAH, NEW MEXICO AND ARIZONA.

THE AREA ALSO CONTAINS A STRONG MINING PRESENCE, ONE THAT HAS LED TO DANGEROUS SPILLS AND WATER CONTAMINATION.

HYDROLOGIST KARLETTA CHIEF, WHO IS A MEMBER OF THE NAVAJO BITTER WATER CLAN, DISCUSSES HER WORK AND HOW HER PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THOSE WATERWAYS INFLUENCED HER PURSUIT OF SCIENCE.

OUR PARTNER SCIENCE FRIDAY HAS THE STORY.

My name is Karletta Chief and I am a Hydrologists.

And I study how water moves through the environment.

Water.

It's a real part of my identity.

The Navajo people or (inaudible) people have this deep connection to the environment.

I'm from the Bitter Water clan one of four originating clans of the Navajo people.

Growing up on the reservation with no running water no electricity and with a very strong cultural upbringing where my family lived off the land raising livestock, we just lived a simple life.

We live within an area leased to a coal company.

One of the big memories I had was how my grandfather she drank from a contaminated wash and a hundred of their sheep died.

It was traumatic because we realized how much of an impact the mine could have on our livelihoods.

I was very motivated by my desire to help my family.

And help my community understand the impacts of the mine and minimize those impacts.

My grandmother told me to work hard and pursue learning but she always told me ('My grandchild, come back to our people') And so I came to the University of Arizona with that motivation.

The Navajo Nation is rich in natural resources.

There are over 2000 mines including uranium, coa, l oil and gas.

Extracting and mining land surface mining can contaminate water.

So my goal was to reach out to tribes.

And address these impacts and the environmental challenges.

Many of my elders though they're not.

Miners they passed away from black lung disease and cancer.

So I really relate to the impacts of mining on communities and families.

August 5th 2015, that was the day the Gold King Mine spill had occured near Silverton Colorado.

Three million gallons of acid mine drainage was released into the Animas River people were going to the river and just watching the horror.

The geology of southwestern Colorado has Barach that's rich in iron as well as other metals and so, when the water and oxygen come into contact with metals in the rock, sulfuric acid is generated and that starts to dissolve the metals such as arsenic and lead into the water creating the acid mine drainage.

And we know that arsenic and lead have a health impact that low cost attraction's for long periods of time.

Their risk assessment that was conducted was only addressing the recreational risk.

However the Navajo people use the river and much more ways than recreational.

They use the water for spiritual, cultural, ranching.

When a spill like this occurs its devastating to the communities that view it as a current being.

The Navajo living along this river we're very concerned about using the water and they had a lot of unanswered questions.

So within the year we surveyed Navajo households living along the river to ask them how to use the river and what we found from that is that the Navajo community members used the river and over 400 different ways.

They all use the reeds for baskets or put the clay on their face for prayers and wear sunscreen.

They'll even put water in their mouth for prayers and many more.

And so we needed to understand where are these metals in the environment where did they go and order to do that we needed to take water samples as well as sediment core samples and so we brought the samples back to the laboratory.

The water samples are filtered and for the sediment samples the sample has to be taken out of this PVC pipe and then categorized according to the depth.

Then finally we can take the sediment and the water sample to an analytical lab to detect arsenic and lead.

For the short term.

It was good news and the results that we had we found from this one year study low levels of arsenic and lead that are not of concern to human health.

However we did find some spikes in manganese.

In concentrated pools and this is something that should be looked at because we do know that manganese leads to some neurological impacts.

During the snowmelt the river will increase the flow and so the metals are deposit on the sediment will be re-suspended and we know that the spikes do occur.

It's important to make sure the farmers and the community members know that they shouldn't be using the river during these these high flow periods.

There's actually a lot more that needs to be done long term because acid mine drainage is continually going into the river.

Our long term actually tries to capture that whole exposure pathways that people may have as a result of using this river.

What motivates me and my work is how I can use my sides to come back to my community and help my people and also try to understand the potential exposure pathways that people have which can be very diverse.

My grandmother charged me with this responsibility.

You must come back and help our people.

And help our family it may not be exactly what she envisioned for me but that's an honor to bring science to my community.

Hari Sreenivasan: Dave Mosher