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First Person: How Western Droughts Impact Navajo Farmers

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Listen: What the future holds for water in the West.


The Colorado River faces a historic water shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation forecasts that the water in Lake Mead will drop to less than 40% of the lake’s capacity by the end of this year.

Lake Mead is the largest reservoir in the U.S. It’s part of the Colorado River, which provides water to 40 million people in seven different states, plus Mexico. The Colorado River basin states negotiated how water is dispersed in the Colorado River Compact, which was first inked in 1922.

Noticeably absent from that agreement were Native Americans and their tribal lands. Native Americans communities have been dealing with loss of water since the drought began 20 years ago. One of those communities is Many Farms, Arizona, where Roland Tso lives. Roland Tso is a grazing official on the Navajo reservation.

Historically, Many Farms has been an agricultural community, but Tso says drought is changing that:


We have a lake, a reservoir that’s here within the Many Farms community. It completely dried out two months ago. It’s happened several times. And right now there’s really not enough water to irrigate the 1,200 acres that we have within the Many Farms valley.

We used to have several species of fish and lately when it dried out, we pretty much don’t have anything in our lake anymore. So most of the crops that were farmed within this valley are corn, squash, watermelon, cantaloupes. Mainly, those are farmed within the community, which corn is a staple to the Navajo people. They use it for ceremonial purposes and food in general.

From what we’re seeing about 20 years ago, the drought has started to set in. So our people have started depending on … supermarkets instead of farming the crops themselves. At this point, the livestock are not in good health. As I go out there with some of the cattle owners, they had to really cut back on their livestock. And that impacts the money in their pocket and their livelihood, their kid, their family, how they feed them. The other thing that’s happening is our water tables are dropping. The danger there is if we drill deeper than we’re starting to come across arsenic, uranium, and we don’t want to deal with that.

Our people have already been impacted by that for so many years. So it’s just messing with the water, going deeper. It causes more problems. At this time, the drought is inevitable. What we’re doing here on that is we’re working with some of our leadership and trying to educate our people to adapt to the situation. If this drought continues, and the land is impacted, and it’s being devastated, what kind of land are we going to leave for a younger generation?

For our grandkids, for our great grandkids? So we have to start thinking ahead. We’re developing drought contingency plans as a nation and as communities, that’s what we’re working on. So, you know, here on Navajo is quite different from the metropolitan areas. From studies, we hear that an average family uses about 300 gallons of water a day. With the shortages that we have, we have families that sometimes only go on 10 gallons per day in these outlying areas. So that’s the impact we have.

We’ve been conserving for so long. But at this point, this drought is just going to make it harder to survive out here.


In this diary … we hear from:

Roland Tso, a grazing official in the Many Farms area of Navajo Nation.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.