For centuries, the Diné people have raised their families and livestock on the high desert lands of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. They have survived even the most difficult of conditions. But as drought has dragged on, more or less for two decades—and the climate continues to warm—some are saying the tribal government needs to better protect its water resources and undertake more long-term planning.
“When you’re living in the desert, you don’t expect it to get even worse,” said Russell Begaye, a Navajo Nation Tribal Council Delegate from Shiprock, NM. He pointed out that reservoir levels are dropping, farming plots are becoming sandier, and the rain- and snowfall have declined.
“Some of our leaders, and some of our people concerned about environmental issues are trying to make people aware,” he said. “It’s going to get progressively worse, we know that. But as a nation, the government, we are simply not ready.”
According to the most recent national climate change assessment, southwestern tribes—such as the Navajo—are among the most vulnerable to impacts from climate change. Published two years ago, that study notes that Navajo elders have noticed declines in snowfall, surface water and water supplies. Certain sacred springs, medicinal plants, and animals have disappeared or declined and dust storms have increased. And while scientists can’t say for sure at this point that extreme weather is tied to climate change, there’s no doubt that the past two years have been challenging—and expensive.
Rosalita Whitehair directs the Nation’s Department of Emergency Management. In the past two years, she said, there have been 11 emergency events, each costing the tribe between $2 million and $4 million. Two years ago, for example, the major flooding occurred in July, August and September 2013—affecting 88 of the tribe’s 110 chapters, damaging 140 homes and costing millions of dollars.
“My main thing I’m noticing here is that we are having a lot of weather extremes, in terms of the severe drought,” Whitehair said, adding that in a recent e-mail to chapter leaders, she asked them to continue mapping and GPS efforts because of the need to pay close attention to those who are continually being affected by emergencies.
“We’re seeing the same homes, the same people, the same places impacted by drought,” she said.
Whitehair regularly reads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports. Currently, forecasters are predicting that throughout the spring and summer, the Southwest will experience El Niño conditions.
“The warmer season will be followed by rain,” said Whitehair. “And then when the rain comes, and hits the drought-impacted earth—which does not allow for percolation—it just runs off, and then we have all these homes that get flooded.”
In other words, although the precipitation is welcome during a drought, heavy rains cause problems.
The impacts of drought have been widespread, added Jeff Cole, wildlife manager with the Navajo Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“We’ve lost a lot of fishing lakes over the years because of the drought, and low snowpack and also because the water table is not recharging,” he said.
Over the course of three decades, they’ve lost 30 lakes—human-made fishing lakes, as well as playa lakes and natural water catchments atop the mesas, Cole said. Wildlife surveys also show low fawn-to-doe ratios. And while drought hasn’t directly affected priority species such as eagles, it does decrease the availability of their prey, Cole said, such as prairie dogs and rabbits.
His department already tries to provide water to wildlife by building earthen catchments and even occasionally drilling new water wells.
“It’s a trend that’s just going to keep getting worse: Temperatures are going to go up, precipitation is going to go down, and it’s going to be like we’re in a drought emergency,” Cole said. “Then when we do get rain or a snowstorm, it will be much more intense—we’ve seen that in the last few years. And we end up going from a drought emergency to a snow emergency or a mud emergency.”
And today, water is an even bigger concern than ever before.
Nearby cities have their own water plans, Begaye said. And some states are planning for long-term drought by moving surface water below ground and storing it within aquifers.
“When you live in a big city, there’s always a plan on how much water is being used, and planning for the future,” he said. “On the Navajo Nation, we don’t have a policy in place that will address the drought, especially when it comes to livestock.”
Over the last two summers, Begaye has seen carcasses of livestock, wild horses, deer and other species where water holes once existed.
“They’re trying to find something with moisture,” Begaye said. “I’ve heard stories of cows trying to literally squeeze water out of dirt that maybe has a degree of moisture in it. It’s sad to see.”
If the wells that serve communities start to dry, that will be disastrous. First, Begaye said, people will have to sell off their livestock. Next, they may need to depart from where their families have always lived, for generations upon generations—to try and find water in other communities.
“Like I said, we live in a desert area. We have gone through many droughts on the Navajo Nation,” he said. “But not on this large a scale. We have never gone through this kind of drought that I believe is coming in the near future. And we’re not ready for it.”
The Department of Emergency Management’s Whitehair tells people they need to be prepared—to have not just a three day’s supply of food, water and fuel as the federal government recommends, but a seven to 10 days’ supply. Many homes and communities are far from paved roads, and it can take a long time for emergency workers to reach them.
And even though their first priority is always reaching and helping elders, especially those who may have health problems, Whitehair said it’s important to remember that the Navajo people are resilient.
“We’ve been taking care of our own and our families for over a millennia,” she said. “Keep that in mind.”
By way of example, she recounted one of her favorite stories. It occurred during an operation a few years ago, when the National Guard flew into an area affected by a mud emergency.
“There they were, they came in on their huge helicopters to bring help to the Navajo Nation,” she said. “They fly in over the mountains and land by a hogan. The grandma comes out and tells them, ‘let me make you some food.’ ”
Whitehair continued: “She invites them into her home and starts making them tortillas on the stove; some potatoes, coffee,” she said. “That’s resiliency! That’s how our grandparents were…and we’ve moved away from that. We need to get back to growing our own gardens, having that kind of resilience—like grandma!”
Although she loves to tell that story—and laughs an easy, hearty laugh at the thought of the guardsmen and the grandma, Whitehair is very serious about climate change and its impacts on the Navajo people—and other American Indian communities.
“We know what the long-term effects are going to be: We’re going to be out of water. That has to be everybody’s concern,” Whitehair said. The Navajo Nation does have a drought task force and, she said, tribes need to be talking with their partners and other tribes. “If these long-term impacts are going to be happening for decades, those conversations need to be happening right now.”