Mike Flenniken is staff writer, Marketing and Communications, for The IAPMO Group. Flenniken can be reached at mike.flenniken@iapmo.org
Mar 22, 2019

Home Improvement

Plumbing challenge solves domestic water & sanitation issues in Native American community

Plumbing challenge solves domestic water & sanitation issues in Native American community

Prewitt, N.M., resident Marie Jones has never had running water in the house her father built, despite repeated pleas for help. But thanks to the International Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (IWSH) Foundation’s most recently completed Community Plumbing Challenge (CPC) event, clean, running water now is only a turn of the faucet away.

“I’m so happy and excited with the water,” said Jones, who frequently takes care of her grandchildren. “I’m just so thankful because I don’t know how I would have done this. Now I won’t be depending on somebody to get water for me, and water in a bucket doesn’t last long.”

The focus of the latest CPC collaboration was the Navajo Water Project, an initiative of the U.S.-based nonprofit organization DigDeep that was among the 2018 recipients of the U.S. Water Prize. The initiative’s goal is to help ensure that every American has clean, running water forever. The St. Bonaventure Indian Mission and School in Thoreau, a small town in northwestern New Mexico, hosted this CPC event from Oct. 22 to 26, 2018, following a series of meetings between DigDeep and IWSH organizing teams, plus preparatory visits to the area earlier in the year.

The Yazzie family received indoor sanitary plumbing in 2018. They received a kitchen sink two years prior.
The Yazzie family received indoor sanitary plumbing in 2018. They received a kitchen sink two years prior.

First in America

CPC Navajo Nation represents the first time a CPC has been hosted in the U.S., following projects in Nashik, India (2015); Diepsloot, South Africa (2016); and Cikarang, Indonesia (2017). IWSH officials are hopeful it signals the beginning of increasing IWSH involvement in helping tackle the growing water and sanitation issues that affect the health and safety of more than 1.6 million American citizens.

“We’re here to give life-changing experiences and bring water and sanitation to people who haven’t had it for years,” said Dain Hansen, managing director for IWSH. “But also with that, we’re giving them the skills to be able to do that themselves in the future, so they can do this long term.”

Grant Stewart, project manager for IWSH, said the week was incredibly rewarding, yet challenging.

“Many families are living without running water and sanitation. The few that do have access to well water, in several cases find that water is so contaminated that it is unusable,” Stewart said. “Therefore, this year, we were forced to use many different approaches to provide adequate access to water and sanitation—repairing homes and connecting them to utility water, installing 1,200-gal water cisterns, and connecting homes to safe wastewater systems. This required a wide range of products and skill sets, which is why it is so gratifying to see the entire industry step up to help a community in need.”

Many families in this community obtain drinking water from government-provided cisterns. The CPC aims to bring clean water to these homes via indoor fixtures.
Many families in this community obtain drinking water from government-provided cisterns. The CPC aims to bring clean water to these homes via indoor fixtures. 

Making an Impact

Jones’ home was one of 10 nominated by DigDeep for October’s CPC Navajo Nation event. None of the homes had adequate sanitation systems, running water or safe electrical systems. By the end of an intensive week, they all had been connected to a wastewater system, nine of the 10 now have running water inside the home, and they all have a safe electrical system. A multi-disciplined team of more than 25 skilled tradespeople traveled from throughout the U.S. and as far away as Australia and South Africa to perform the work.

Jones’ sister and next-door neighbor, Angie Yazzie, also was a beneficiary of the project. She still lives in the house her grandfather built, along with her daughter and two granddaughters. She frequently cares for her grandson while her son is in school.

Yazzie said approximately two years ago, St. Bonaventure installed a water tank behind the house that allowed them to use the kitchen sink, but they still had to use an outhouse on the property.

“It’s hard in the winter days when we go,” she said. “It’s really cold to walk over there. So, I’m just happy that there’s a restroom for us now.”

Baca-Prewitt Chapter President Cecil Lewis Jr. explained that new sanitary facilities in these households will give many local children a better opportunity to pursue their education.

“A lot of our youth miss out on schooling due to no restrooms,” he said. “There’s usually about three to nine people in one house. Illness comes upon them because they don’t take care of themselves because of lack of water.”

Keeping Promises

Cindy Howe, DigDeep’s project manager for the Navajo Water Project, joined the organization in May after 10 years with St. Bonaventure. She is well acquainted with the residents’ plight, and said many have been promised clean water and safe sanitation for years, only to see those promises go unfulfilled. As a result, Howe said, the first thing DigDeep has to do is gain locals’ trust, followed by encouraging them to participate in the process by preparing their properties and making sure they meet with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority officials when necessary.

“This project has made a big difference in a lot of people’s homes and families, and I’m very happy to be part of it,” Howe said. “I’m hopeful this will continue, and it sounds like it might. So, I’m very happy for that.”

Loretta Smith, whose home was the most remote of the 10 selected for the CPC project, was overjoyed. She lives next door to her brother and nephew—who also had work done on their home—and regularly takes care of her grandchildren. Because of the remote location, rather than being connected to the water system both homes use cisterns provided by the Office of Environmental Health. Previously they had to hand carry the water from barrels in the front yard; thanks to the CPC, they are now able to access that water using indoor fixtures. Volunteers also dug leach fields and installed septic systems for each home’s bathroom, meaning the residents will have indoor plumbing for the first time.

“We’ve never been helped like this before,” Smith said. “It’s nice and it’s perfect. I was happy when they came around here. I’m glad that they’re here. They keep asking me how I’m going to feel when they finish it. I tell them, ‘I’ll jump up and down!’”

Randy Lorge, training manager for UA Local 400 Plumbers & Steamfitters in Kaukauna, Wis., also participated in the three previous international CPCs. He said the Navajo Nation CPC was unlike anything he had ever experienced.  

“In all my travels to overseas countries helping deliver safe water and sanitation systems, I have never seen conditions as upsetting as I did this week on the Navajo Indian reservation,” Lorge said. “It was one of the most exhausting but worthwhile weeks of my life. I am so proud I was able to be a part of the CPC once again—this time, in my own country—and to have the opportunity to work with other like-minded plumbers from not only the U.S. but around the world.”

Eventful Week

The CPC week began with a welcome ceremony and a special roundtable meeting titled, “Water and Sanitation Crisis in America: Government & Industry Working Together for Solutions,” hosted at the Thoreau Chapter House. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-Santa Fe), and U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-Albuquerque) attended the welcome ceremony and roundtable. 

In addition to focusing on issues concerning tribal lands, the roundtable looked at problems facing the more than 1.6 million people across the U.S. without access to clean water and safe sanitation.

Residents had the opportunity to show their appreciation during a community forum at the Baca-Prewitt Chapter House on Oct. 24, during which Prewitt residents Regina Vandever and Smith, whose homes were both recipients of CPC project works, led preparation of a dinner for all of the volunteers and other local residents. Several more of the CPC’s beneficiaries took to their feet to thank the volunteers during the emotional event.

“We hope that there are people in the room tonight—who are involved in the CPC for the first time—that will join us for the next CPC, as well,” Seán Kearney, project manager for International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials (IAPMO)/IWSH said at the forum, “and we really hope that we’ve begun something important here in our collaboration with DigDeep this week that will continue into the future.”

The Navajo Nation CPC was sponsored by LIXIL/American Standard; IAPMO; Plumbers Local Union 412; the Piping Industry Progress & Education Trust Fund/NITC; United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States, Canada; World Plumbing Council; Reliance Worldwide Corp./Sharkbite Plumbing Solutions; Plumbing Contractors of America/Mechanical Contractors Association of America; Plumbers Local Union No. 400; Plumbers Local Union No. 12; Plumbing Industry Climate Action Centre; Plumbers Local Union No. 68; Plumbers Local Union No. 78; American Society of Plumbing Engineers; Milwaukee Tool; G.E. Appliances, the PHCC Educational Foundation; Plumbers Local Union No. 798; and Thrivent Financial. 

Australian non-governmental organization Healthabitat also has been a key IWSH partner in the design and ongoing development of the CPC program since its inception in 2015. For CPC Navajo Nation, Healthabitat Project Manager Dave Donald oversaw a “Housing for Health” survey-fix program with a team of local community representatives and residents in the days leading up to the event. This survey helped capture detailed information on hardware defects and risks to the general health of family members in each home, which then was used to better plan and prepare renovation and upgrade works scheduled for the CPC project week.

Individuals or organizations who are interested in getting involved in future CPCs, or would like to join forces to support ongoing efforts around the Navajo Water Project, are encouraged to get in contact via info@iwsh.org., where further ideas or comments are welcomed. 

About the author

Mike Flenniken is staff writer, marketing and communications, for The IAPMO Group. Flenniken can be reached at mike.flenniken@iapmo.org.