To’Hajiilee water line groundbreaking: “an impossible project”

Large tan water tank reservoir in the background, party tent in mid-ground, people milling about, a line of shovels in a pile of dirt in the foreground.

An impossibility.

With the obligatory shovels in pre-softened dirt, a group of political leaders from the Navajo Nation, New Mexico state and local government, and water agencies this morning (Wed. 5/15/2024) formally inaugurated a new pipeline being built to connect the Navajo community of To’Hajiilee to the 3.5 million gallon reservoir in the picture – clean, piped water to a community that now has one working well and water so bad no one drinks it.

One of the oldtimers who’d been working on it for more than two decades walked up to me and said, “This is an impossible project.”

What he meant was that the project had overcome seemingly insurmountable hurdles in the interactions between a welter of government agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and sometimes incompatible responsibilities.

I went to the event wearing two hats – as a member of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority’s Technical Customer Advisory Committee, and on behalf of the Utton Center, which has a long history of working on Native American water stuff. (I was literally wearing my ABCWUA gimme cap, I don’t have an Utton one.)

To’Hajiilee, 35-ish miles west of Albuquerque, has six water wells. Five have already failed. The sixth is regularly off line. When it’s down, they have to shut down school and the clinic. When it’s working, the water is awful.

The vision statement from the Universal Access to Clean Water For Tribal Communities project is simple: “Every Native American has the right to clean, safe, affordable water in the home ensuring a minimum quality of life.”

In this 1999 book Development as Freedom, the Nobel laureate economist and moral philosopher Amartya Sen explains freedoms as “the capabilities that a person has, that is, the substantive freedoms he or she enjoys to lead the kind of life he or she has reason to value.”

“Rights” are tricky political terrain, because they’re often framed in negative terms – the absence of coercion or interference from others, particularly the state. But Sen’s making an affirmative argument here. It is not enough for the collective to simply get out of the individual’s way. The collective has an affirmative moral obligation to create the conditions under which the individual can flourish – to pursue that which they “have reason to value,” to repeat Sen. That’s sorta what my friends at the Universal Access project are saying with their vision statement.

At the urging of a colleague, I’ve been reading Sen lately in an effort to make sense of the moral underpinnings of the collective choices we face as we cope with the reality of less water. (For those familiar with Sen, know that I am not reading the mathy parts – they’re impenetrable!)

The Plumbing – Physical and Financial

The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility’s 7W reservoir, the tan thing in the picture, sits on high ground midway between Albuquerque and To’Hajiilee, a perfect water source for the community. In eighteen months under the current construction schedule, we’ll have a 7 mile pipe from here to there.

If the tally in my notes is correct (don’t hold me to this, I’m not a real journalist any more), it’s a ~$20 million project, with a mix of federal, state, and Navajo Nation funding.

The actual water in the pipes is the result of a fascinating agreement between the Navajo Nation and the Jicarilla Apache Nation in norther New Mexico. The Navajo Nation will lease Jicarailla water, which will be wheeled down the San Juan River, into the Rio Grande, and then diverted by the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, treated, and pumped up to 7W.

The Struggles to Get This Done

Former Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley, speaking at the groundbreaking, told the story of the bare-knuckle politics it took to overcome the intransigence of a landowner that stood in the way of the project – Western Albuquerque Land Holdings. And for sure, O’Malley and the group she worked with deserve a ton of credit for the use of their knuckles at a critical point in the struggle to get the pipeline built.

But more important is the community of To’Hajiilee itself, people like Mark Begay, my colleague on the Albuquerque water utility’s Technical Customer Advisory Committee. For decades, Begay and the other leaders in To’Hajiilee acted on behalf of their community to pursue “that which they had reason to value” – water!

This is about the community’s own collective agency, “the result of collective processes and collective actions in which people’s interactions shape their common destiny.” (Oscar Garza-Vázquez)

It was a joy to share the celebration of their success. I’ll be back in 18 months when they open the taps.


One Comment

  1. John you are such a gifted writer. Thank you for this wonderful synopsis. I will see you in 18 months for the celebration of this hard work to bring a safe, reliable water to the people of To’Hajiilee. It is long overdue.

    Barbara Baca
    BernCo Commissioner District 1

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