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Hopi Tribe Races To Expand Access To Clean Running Water

For the Hopi tribe of Arizona, COVID-19 has highlighted longstanding disparities including limited access to clean running water.
Posted at 6:13 AM, Oct 22, 2020

The most common advice for beating COVID-19: Wash your hands. But that simple instruction isn't so simple when you don’t have access to clean running water.

For the Hopi tribe of Arizona, the coronavirus has highlighted longstanding disparities on the reservation.

"This area don't have water or sewer lines. But inside the village, they have both water and sewer. But not everybody's hooked up to the community line," said Vivian Cochise, referring to parts of her village on the Hopi reservation.

For Cochise and her children, that meant hauling water twice a day from their village windmill, risking greater exposure to the virus.

"And so that means sanitizing my pitchers, wiping my water can and my buckets. And then, when we go to the community, I'm wiping the handles and things because you just don't know," said Cochise. 

For now, this portable hand washing station is the closest Vivian will get to running water at home. She explains how it works.

"Come here, and you pump this and the water comes up."

Nearly 40% of households on the Hopi reservation don’t have running water, according to the Hopi Tribal Chairman's office.

The portable hand washing station is a creative stopgap. It’s designed by the local nonprofit Red Feather. They have provided over 200 of the stations to Hopi households, offering a more convenient and safer way to access clean water. But they don’t combat the much larger issue facing the reservation: insufficient water systems.

"Where we're located geographically, there's a lot of high mesas and challenging terrain that we have to get through," said Timothy Nuvangyaoma, chairman of the Hopi Tribe. "The village right up here to the to the west of us, as Orayvi, has no water infrastructure at all."

He says the tribe has had water infrastructure plans in place for years.

"It's just the lack of the funding that has been what was been holding the Hopi tribe up," said Nuvangyaoma. "We rely a lot on federal funding."

With a 65% unemployment rate and a struggling economy, it’s challenging for the tribe to generate enough revenue streams to build out the water infrastructure it so desperately needs.

As a result, "a lot of people have become reliant on bottled water, which comes at a price, and it shouldn't be like that," said Nuvangyaoma. 

That's why the chairman is looking to use some of the $92 million the tribe received from the CARES Act to build new water systems.

"The water infrastructure they're currently working on right now will stretch out with portable water off one of our aquifers," said Nuvangyaoma. 

But the clock is ticking. Hopi and other tribes were given CARES Act money in June, two months after other state and local governments. Yet they have only until Dec. 30 to spend billions of dollars.

Making it a race against the clock to comply with federal government restrictions and vet contractors to complete projects -- like water infrastructure -- that normally take years.

"If they truly want us to use that money appropriately and get something built out that's going to benefit, overall, the long term of the reservation that has truly needed this attention, we need a little bit more time," said Nuvangyaoma. "Bottom line, we need more time to fully assess this to make sure that these are built out."

For now, Vivian Cochise and her family are grateful to have flowing water.

"It just made it a lot easier, and just visualizing that you're at an actual bathroom sink," said Cochise.