Operation Water Freeze
Tribe struggles to bring water back
By Noel Lyn Smith
NAVAJO, N.M., February 7, 2013
(Times Photo – Donovan Quintero)
A t the end of Spruce Street here, two workers from Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority were digging a trench with shovels while noise from the nearby backhoe tractor echoed in the air.
After digging through asphalt and three feet of frozen ground, the men finally exposed the water pipe that feeds this cluster of housing.
Since last month, parts of the Navajo Nation have experienced below zero temperatures that have resulted in damage to waterlines, leading to a shortage of drinking water.
With nighttime temperatures dipping below zero, the ground froze deeper than normal and caused some buried waterlines to freeze.
In the daytime temperatures increased causing waterlines to thaw and the soil to shift resulting in waterlines breaking and leaking.
Gene Laughlin, a field foreman with NECA, said this waterline is located in a swallow trench and when the frost hit, the line froze causing five homes to lose service.
"What we are doing is reconstructing some of these lines. We're taking them down 48 inches or better, to where it won't happen again," Laughlin said on Tuesday, adding that elderly and people with disabilities live in the neighborhood.
The five-member team was working on a job in Manuelito, N.M. when they received the call to assist Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.
Their first repair job was two weeks ago in Hunters Point, Ariz. Since then they have worked in St. Michaels, Window Rock and Fort Defiance before arriving here.
Jason Corral, NTUA senior civil engineer, led representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 9 and the Arizona Division of Emergency Management to work sites located here, Fort Defiance, Crystal, N.M. and Tohatchi, N.M.
At one of the sites in Fort Defiance, a mainline valve had to be replaced after a customer reported the water leak Sunday.
Since the valve sits in a low-lying area, Corral suspects the ground shifted after the snow melted causing the valve to move.
"That's what my guess is, there's no rocket scientist's way in knowing sometimes," Corral said.
He also estimated that the valve was between 50-60 years old, but without a serial number it is difficult to pinpoint its correct age.
"Some of them go 50-plus years," he said. "It depends on the maintenance of the actual valve."
A new valve was installed and NTUA crewmembers were backfilling the area.
Fort Defiance hardest hit
On Monday, NTUA Deputy General Manager Rex Kontz told the tribe's emergency management team, representatives from the state's Division of Emergency Management, Apache County, and the American Red Cross that there are 1,729 reported water outages.
NTUA has seven utility districts and the most reports is 565 from the Fort Defiance district followed by 420 reports within the Crownpoint district.
Crews from NTUA and NECA have been assessing and repairing the damage, which range from broken waterlines to frozen control valves.
A major issue is that a wash completely froze over a waterline in Jeddito Chapter and residents downstream of that wash have no water service, he said.
In addition to crews from NTUA and NECA, Kontz is waiting for crews from Salt River Project to help with repairs.
There are about 22 crews working right now but in order to have the issue resolved by the end of the month, 15 additional crews need to be deployed.
In a press release Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly stated that the tribe is looking for $2.8 million in funding to pay for 15 additional crews and for operation of the tribe's Emergency Management Center, located inside the Navajo Division of Transportation complex in Tsé Bonito, N.M.
The funding request could be submitted either to the federal government or to the tribe but the administration is continuing to examine which agencies can assist, said Erny Zah, Shelly's communications director.
If the money were from the tribe, the likely source would be the Unreserved Undesignated Fund Balance, Zah said.
Also on Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer issued an emergency declaration for the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe and parts of Apache, Navajo and Coconino counties.
Brewer also authorized $200,000 from the state's general fund to help the affected reservations and counties.
For those areas with restored service, individuals may notice the water is brown. In those cases, it is advised to boil the water.
When boiling water, health professionals recommend bringing the water to a boil for at least one minute then allowing it to cool before using.
It is also advised that boiled or bottled water be used for drinking, brushing teeth, washing dishes and food preparation.
Two semi-trucks delivered 80,000 pounds of bottled water and Gatorade to Window Rock as part of the effort to supply individuals affected by the water outage.
The Jan. 31 donation was made by St. Mary's Food Bank, which is based in Phoenix, along with assistance from Fry's in Phoenix and Home Depot and Safeway in Gallup.
The donation was delivered after Shelly and the tribe's Commission on Emergency Management declared a state of emergency Jan. 25.
Jerry Brown, in charge of media relations for the food bank, told FOX 10 News that the organization received the call for assistance Jan. 30 and plans were quickly set to make the delivery to Window Rock.
Emergency management team members Spencer Willie and Leila Help-Tulley watched as a forklift from Navajo Housing Authority stored the donation at the Navajo Nation Fairgrounds.
"One by one, it's happening," Help-Tulley said while watching each of the 22 pellets being placed inside Nakai Hall.
The donation was not stored for too long before being delivered to NTUA's district locations then distributed to those impacted by the outage.
Earlier in the week, a 6,500-gallon water tanker from the City of Flagstaff delivered water to Tuba City and the Arizona State Forestry Division also sent two 3,000-gallon potable water tankers to provide service on the Navajo Nation.