Damage to Navajo Nation water goes beyond money

Story highlights

  • Navajo Nation is among the communities affected by the Gold King Mine spill
  • Leader wants to take legal action against the EPA

(CNN)On the Navajo reservation, the leader of the community of Shiprock worries about the corn, melons, squashes and other crops that could be lost if water from the San Juan River can't be drawn for irrigation.

The New Mexico farmers stopped drawing water from the river following the August 5 wastewater spill at a mine in Colorado into a river system that carried the pollutants to the reservation.
Preliminary tests in Colorado and New Mexico point to the spill having minimum risk of adverse health affects, but Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie will wait for a definitive all-clear before using the water on crops.
Rainfall this week bought the farmers more time, Yazzie said, but the next week is crucial. Some 750 families rely on farming for food, he said.
Communities up and down the Animas and San Juan rivers have been affected by the 3 million gallons of wastewater that spilled into the rivers, but the Navajo Nation in New Mexico appears to have the most at risk.
"Our community here, the very critical nature of our predicament is that we are a river-based community and we're a strong agricultural community and the impact is very, very tremendous," Yazzie told CNN.
Just 30 miles upstream, in Farmington, residents reported being upset at the spill, but taking it in stride. Farmington has a reservoir with about a three-month supply of clean water, so drinking water is safe and businesses haven't skipped a beat.
Shiprock gets its drinking water from Farmington, so it is safe, too. The worries stem from the farmland that uses river water for irrigation, and the communication barriers that may be keeping some members of the Navajo community uninformed of the contamination.
Despite signs and widespread warnings, Yazzie says isolated cases have been reported of people filling up water trucks from the river to give to their cattle.

Vowing legal action against agency

These cases may be occurring because some members of the Navajo Nation don't use the most common technology to communicate, or in some cases, speak native languages instead of English, Yazzie said.
The EPA is responsible for the spill of the toxic pollutants from the Gold King Mine in Colorado. The orange sludge flowed from the Animas River in Colorado into New Mexico, where it met and started following the San Juan River, a key source of water for Navajo communities.
Several political leaders have expressed outrage at the EPA spill and declared states of emergency, but the Navajo Nation is the first to say it will take legal action the federal government.
Yazzie said the EPA didn't alert them about the spill until 24 hours after the incident.
The spill will have a destructive impact on the ecosystems fed by the San Juan River that the Navajo culture depends on, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said at a community meeting this weekend.
"They are not going to get away with this," Begaye said. "The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster, and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious Navajo natural resources."
Begaye also instructed the Navajo Nation Department of Justice to take action against the EPA.
According to the EPA, the spill occurred when one of its teams was using heavy equipment to enter the Gold King Mine, a suspended mine north of Durango. Instead of entering the mine and beginning the process of pumping and treating the contaminated water inside as planned, the team accidentally caused it to flow into the nearby Animas.

More than economics

The most obvious impact of the spill is economic.
But for the Navajo, there are other impacts that cannot be quantified, Yazzie said.
Beyond the economic element, there is the Navajos' cultural and traditional connection with the land, he said.
"And an even higher tier is our spiritual realization of what water represents to us," he said. "Water is a very intricate, very elemental basis of the tradition of our religion. And for our river to be harmed in this way, the damage -- spiritually, emotionally, psychologically is beyond description."
There is a sense of mourning for the contaminated river, which is so central to the community.
The immediate concern is the potential loss of the crops, but much of the pain in Shiprock, from young and old alike, is over the damage done to the river.
"There is no equating what we are losing here in terms of value," Yazzie said.