Audacious Water: The Podcast with Guest Bidtah Becker
Episode #2: Becker on solving the water equity crisis in Navajo Nation
Navajo Nation native and associate attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority Bidtah Becker on how the pandemic has highlighted water inequity on the reservation, the difference between a values vs. a solutions focus for increasing water equity, and how COVID could eventually drive increased water equity for the Navajo Nation.
Listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast platform.
- Bidtah Becker’s LinkedIn page
- Bidtah on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bnbecker
- The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority
- The Indian Health Service
- The Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin: A conversation with Anne Castle, former assistant secretary for water and science, US Department of the Interior
- Water & Tribes Initiative report: Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin
- The four buckets of water in Indian Country: Heather Tanana, assistant professor of law at the University of Utah, explains them to Inside Higher Ed
- The Bureau of Reclamation’s site for the https://www.usbr.gov/projects/index.php?id=580
- The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project completion is expected to be delayed until 2029
- The Wikipedia page for Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a film directed by Frank Capra and starring Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart, about a newly appointed US Senator fighting against political corruption.
- The Center for Disease Control’s statement about racism and public health disparities Racism and Health | Health Equity | CDC
JOHN: Welcome to Audacious Water, the podcast about how to create a world of water abundance for everyone. I’m John Sabo, director of the ByWater Institute at Tulane University.
JOHN: On Today’s episode, the water-access challenges facing the Navajo Nation. My guest is Bidtah Becker, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, and an associate attorney for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Bidtah has deep historical understanding of the attempts to solve the lack of water access for the Navajo Nation. And she has some unique views on where we go from here. Coming up I talk with Bidtah about how the pandemic has highlighted water inequity on the reservation, the difference between a values-vs-a solutions focus for increasing water equity, and how COVID could eventually drive increased water equity for the Navajo Nation.
JOHN: Bidtah nice to have you.
BIDTAH: Thanks John, it’s great to be with you.
JOHN: Let’s start with a softball pitch. I have a really boring name, which is “John.” And there are so many jokes that could be made about, you know, another John and these sorts of things. And so when I go into something, you know, a place like Starbucks I know there are going to be at least three others waiting for drinks that have the same name, so I usually use a different name. And I use the name “Reggie.” Reggie was my high school basketball hero — he played for the Georgetown Hoyas. He had the best three-point jump shot from long-range of all time I think. And it just makes me happy to use the name “Reggie.” So tell me an interesting story about your name.
BIDTAH: Yeah, sure. So it is Navajo in origin, but it’s very unclear what it means because pronunciation is everything, right? So is it “(Bitta),” “(Bidja)?” My mom calls me “(Bitta-B),” only when she’s upset with me. So I insist on being called “(Bitta).” I think the funniest story I have is — so the name originates in Shiprock and there’s a woman. So — and it’s normally a last name, Bidtah — and it’s spelled this way in the Shiprock area, which is where I was born. And there’s a woman from there named “Minnie Bidtah,” and I had never thought about that until somebody started cracking up asking, “Is she a mini-you?” And it’s really funny if you’re Navajo because she truly is mini, she’s tiny. But she is a force of nature, and she in our culture would be considered a grandma out of respect, it’s a term of respect here. So to think that this strong, forceful woman two decades my age would be a mini-me just absolutely cracked me up. And this story is so much funnier if you saw Minnie and if you knew her. Anybody who knows her just starts laughing immediately.
JOHN: That’s funny. That’s a great story. Let’s think about listeners that may not have been to a reservation, may not have been to the Navajo Nation. What does water look like on the reservation? What does the infrastructure look like? Tell me about it.
BIDTAH: If anybody’s driven to the Grand Canyon they have seen water on the Navajo Nation. And I get this question quite a bit from the East Coast, which is, “So are you telling me that when I was driving to the Grand Canyon and I saw, like, what we would call a ‘family compound,’ but I saw, like, several little living areas, you’re telling me that people were living in there?” And I always say yes. Water on the Navajo Nation looks different depending on if you’re in a concentrated area where a lot of people live. So I live in a concentrated area and by a lot of people. I think — I’m really bad at numbers, but I’m going to say maybe 10,000 to 12,000 people in we jokingly call, the “Tri-State Area,” meaning it’s Window Rock, Fort Defiance, and Saint Michaels. So Window Rock is the capital of the Navajo Nation. And I live in a housing subdivision. I live in a cul-de-sac. You know, if you were just standing in my cul-de-sac and did not look up you would think you were anywhere in the United States. But once you start looking around you see the beautiful Colorado Plateau, and the, you know, natural surroundings. But for people, for instance, who are living — if you drive up to the Grand Canyon… So I have water in my home. It’s what we call lovingly the “rural areas” of the Navajo Nation, likely lack access to clean water being piped into their homes. Now, I need to be very clear to say that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re not near a waterline. Why plumbing was never built to their home, or the pipes were never built to their homes is still a little bit of a mystery to me. But — and I’m saying that because the Indian Health Service is primarily responsible for building clean drinking water into people’s homes. If you drive around the reservation you’ll see homes that have electricity but that might have an outhouse. Well, that’s a sign that these people have electricity but no clean drinking water to their homes. So they might be using a cistern, and for your audience’s understanding, generally cisterns are considered a stop-gap not full sanitation. Or they might be not using a cistern and just using buckets of water that they’ll wash with, clean with, that sort of thing. And those people tend to need to fill up two to three times a week a big — a huge tank, you know, that fits in the back of a truck. Again, every family is different, their needs, how often they can afford to go out and get water, etc. So we estimate there’s probably about 14,000 homes on the Navajo Nation that lack clean — piped water to their homes. My answer is taking a long time because the pandemic has shined a light, right, on this inequity. It’s always existed, it’s not a new issue, but the pandemic has shined a light on what happens when people don’t have access to clean drinking water. Moving water costs money, right? It costs money. And (inaudible) has not had access to funding to build those lines, and when it does — when we do, that’s what we’re doing — we’re starting to build lines. And right now we’re taking data on how many people are a half-mile from a waterline. And that’s because we are anticipating funding coming through the American Rescue Plan that was just signed into law of March 11th. So depending on where you are water is either — either you have it or you don’t, I think is the way to view it. And there is no way people can understand what it’s like to live without power, water, broadband, no way. Like, so let me stop there because I think that that is a fair way to describe the water situation here.
JOHN: No, that’s a compelling answer and I think it gives a good image of what I’ve seen on my way to the Grand Canyon, and I think fair. And you brought up two other issues. One is access equity, and the other is the pandemic. And I think we’ll cover both of them. But why don’t we start with access? You and I talked about your description of access as being four buckets. So what are those and why are they so relevant on the reservation?
BIDTAH: The four buckets was a result of some research that has been completed through what’s called the “Water and Tribes Initiative.” So through the Water and Tribes Initiative in the Colorado River Basin there — an initiative was started to look at this access to clean drinking water question. And I need to explain that the Water and Tribes Initiative was not started for this. The Water and Tribes Initiative was started in ’17 or 2018 to give a greater voice to tribes as the renegotiation or the guidelines for operations of the Colorado River system, specifically the operations of Lake Mead and Lake Powell were gearing up. And those renegotiations are starting and kind of the next phase of Colorado River management. But as, you know, we were beginning — as we — this leadership team was discussing — was meeting this pandemic happened. And it was fascinating that so many people who lived and worked — who I’ve lived and worked with for twenty years in the Colorado River Basin were not aware of this lack of access to clean drinking water in the Basin. So we used the moment to shine a light on this issue, to get some research to work with Congress and the Executive Branch to find some real-world solutions. But what our researchers found — and the research is headed up by a professor out of Utah, a law professor named Heather Tanana — is that there’s four buckets in Indian country. And their research is that for the thirty tribes located in the Colorado River Basin every tribe suffers one or more of the issues in one of these four buckets. So the four buckets are first, lack of piped water, and that’s what we’ve discussed already. The second is aging infrastructure. So infrastructure might’ve been built in the ’50s and ’60s and it’s not being replaced, or it needs to be replaced. The third bucket inability to adequately address the operations and maintenance issues. And again, by that — that’s largely a cost issue, meaning as we discussed, water — screening it and moving it does take funding. Let me be real specific on that because for Navajo Tribal Utility issue we are multi-utility. So we have six services we provide. When you get a (bill), if you’re an NTUA customer and you have electricity from NTUA, water, and wastewater — and for instance, I’m both a customer and an employee of NTUA — you will see a charge for electricity, a charge for water, a charge for wastewater, but it all gets billed — lumped into one bill. Our water rates are, you know, they’re at the higher end of the rates in the region. Our electric rates are the lowest in the region, and they subsidize the water infrastructure. That’s — NTUA’s able to balance this out because we’re a multi-utility. It’s much harder for water-only operators, right, because all they’ve got is the water, they don’t have other services that can subsidize these operational costs. And in the fourth bucket is water quality. So either that’s naturally-occurring water issues or water issues that are aggravated by infrastructure. You know, I think of the Flint, Michigan example. The Hopi chairman put it really well at a listening session we held in about two months ago. And he said, you know, “BIA came in and built our water supply system into an aquifer that has arsenic, and now the EPA is threatening to fine the Hopi tribe to a level that will bankrupt us to resolve that arsenic problem.” So again, cost, cost, cost, but of course we — you know, water quality is a truly serious issue. My understanding in the Hopi situation is that regulations have changed over time. So that leads you back to the other bucket of aging infrastructure, right? So is the infrastructure keeping up with changing regulations?
JOHN: So just — that’s super interesting, but just to recap, the four buckets are no infrastructure, aging infrastructure, operations and maintenance, and water quality. In the Navajo Nation what’s the most important bucket? Or an easier question — or a different question might be, what’s the lowest-hanging fruit. Like, where do you start?
BIDTAH: The lowest-hanging fruit right now is taking the funding we have and build, build, build, right? Let’s get more homes hooked up to waterlines, recognizing that there are going to be homes that are going to be too far, and so — too far to make it economically-feasible. So while we’re working on building, building, we are bringing more custom… This is the ironic thing, right? We’re bringing more customers on who can help support this system. And what’s critical for drinking water systems is you can’t have water sit in the system, right? It’s got to keep moving. And that’s a concern about having homes that are too far from a waterline is the water could sit in that line and then become contaminated or become unhealthy to use. So it’s such an interesting question, John, because if you had — well one, if we were talking in 2019 we wouldn’t be talking. But the low-hanging fruit would look so different than what they look like right now.
JOHN: Let’s move to the pandemic and talk about COVID. I mean, to me it feels like based on talking to you that COVID is both shining a light on problems, and problems are exacerbated by it. So talk a little bit about that dynamic in the Navajo Nation.
BIDTAH: Yeah, sure. So I think it’s interesting to note that the Indian Health Service was created in 1954. And the program to address what are called “sanitation deficiencies” was created in 1959. And I would say that the term “sanitation deficiency” meant nothing to 99% of the population until COVID-19, right? Now we know what “sanitation deficiency” means. It means when a doctor prescribes to you to stay home, wash your hands frequently for twenty seconds, and do not go out into the public so that you can protect yourself from this virus, that can’t happen for way too many people in this country. And it’s a spectrum. There are some people it can’t happen for because they live in overcrowded housing, and somebody in that house has to go to work and is going to get exposed, and is going to bring that virus home, and people can’t isolate. That’s all the way down to people don’t have clean drinking water in their homes to wash their hands with. So they have to leave their homes to get water. So they are potentially exposing themselves. I just think, you know, it’s interesting you ask the question, because I think it relates to what we were talking about earlier where my boss is, like, “You cannot — like, you can give statistics, you can say this many homes likely lack it, but you cannot — that means nothing,” right? “You can’t quantify what the lack of access to utilities in your homes means until — well, I was going to say until now. We still cannot quantify what it means, because I think going big picture I think this country is struggling with what does it mean to lose — what are we at — 520,000? I don’t know what the latest number of lives are that we’ve lost. I mean, can you quantify that? I know insurance agents can quantify it. But, I mean, can we quantify it, right? But I think what COVID has done is at least allowed people to relate to the lack of infrastructure in a meaningful way, in a way that they would never have been able to relate to before 2020. And (inaudible) pick on my dear, dear, dear friends who are doctors, but they didn’t really understand what I worked on until 2020. You know, I have spent my whole career working on bringing new clean water to the Navajo Nation. And pre-2020 a lot of that work came through the form of settling water rights claims and then getting an influx of federal funding that way. And for instance, the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project is currently being constructed. I mean, I think we just have to pause and think about that. The Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project is currently being constructed. It’s two laterals. One lateral was completed last year, which is wonderful. The bigger lateral is still under construction. But we need to pause and think about that because that project was first thought about and conceptualized in the 1950s, right? In the 1950s this project to bring San Juan River water down into northwestern New Mexico, but most of which is the Navajo Nation, was already thought about by the powers that be, by state entities, federal entities, as a needed project. It was never authorized until the Navajo Nation settled its water rights, you know, fifty, sixty years later, and in the middle of a pandemic it’s being constructed. So, you know, again, where my mind goes is what is cost, and what is — you know, what does all of this mean? I think what’s exciting about right now is we do have a federal administration that is — well, I don’t want to speak for them — but when I watch what they’re doing I think they are listening to the public “outcries,” I think I’ll call it, for social equity, racial equity, and the calls for, my gosh, we are the, you know, richest country in the world. We have — you know, fill in all of the blanks. And we had no idea. We had no idea that so many (inaudible) live in a different world than we do.
JOHN: Let’s noodle on that a little bit. When we talked earlier you talked about how a solutions focus is all wrong and instead we need a values focus. I thought that was super interesting. Let’s hear about that.
BIDTAH: So I like to say if you went back to Congress in 1959 and said there’s going to be a pandemic in 2020, American Indians and Alaska natives are going to die at the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group in this country, and one of the possible reasons why is because of lack of access to sanitation facilities in their homes, they’d be like, “No, we’ve got the solution. No, that’s why we’re creating IHS in 1959. You know, we’re going to have this solved in ten, fifteen years,” right? I say that because I think — remember we’ve talked about the 1950s in a couple of contexts already. I think that the ’50s was still part of that big growth era, right? It was still part of the post-World War II era. And I don’t want to underestimate — I don’t want to… I think that, you know, it’s always hard for us to relate to what people who came before us went through. But, you know, if I had put myself in those people’s shoes, having seen the bombs that were going off, I mean, what a world they were living in, right? And we think — when I think of that period — because I think Navajo has many remnants of the big growth era. And we still live with World War II every day in our society, either through the abandoned uranium mines, or by honoring our code-talkers. We still very much have World War II on our mind. I think that people were looking for stability, right? They were looking for permanent solutions, you know, and we’re going to have world peace forever, new world order, and big growth, and that’s it. Well, I don’t think — you know, I think solutions is very temporal and it reflects maybe the culture and spirit of the time. But it’s the values that make sure solutions are implemented, or that if solutions cannot be implemented it’s the values that say, “Okay, well, let’s figure out how to get them implemented,” right? So rather than programs becoming bureaucratic in nature so that people are managing a bureaucracy, they’re actually managing values. Okay, well, we hit a road — so example, we hit a road bump. We can’t get through this mountain to get… This is not really an extreme example because we know there are trans-mountain diversions all over. But I’m using mountain because that’s a physical structure. You know, we can’t get through this mountain to get some clean drinking water to people. We don’t think it’s worth the cost and time to do it. So rather than abandoning the project, well, how do we go about (in) revisioning the project so that all people — so that the values that I think American citizens believe exist in this country, the values that all humans are created equal, so that that value is truly lived in our material world as well as in sort of a political-ideological world. And those values really become important when the blockage is not a physical third-party, you know, you-can-point-to-it-and-touch-it problem, but the value structure overcomes maybe even limitations of the human mind, or the limitations of the human political systems so that when it’s human beings that create the problem — either through regulations, or a financial system, or you name it — whatever system it is we have that’s created by human beings, human beings can then figure out the solution to move that human-created system so that we get to the values we want. I just have to say that last night we watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and it was — it shouldn’t have been shocking to me, but it was shocking to me about — it was the same conversation in 1939 when they made the movie as it is now. Same conversation about what happens when people become politicians, and systems get taken out of people’s hands, and we may think that we’re doing good work because X is getting done, but we’re forgetting that we’ve lost sight of our values, you know, what’s really important to us.
JOHN: Let’s push the values platform a little bit further and talk about the current administration, the Biden administration, and work that you’re doing with that administration. Tell us about what could happen and tell us about what should happen that would push the values platform forward in a way that was productive.
BIDTAH: So what I see happening is there are federal bureaucrats who feel free or, depending on who they are, are no longer afraid to discuss issues through a racial-equity lens. It may have always been there, but they were not given — or they did not feel — and I don’t want to speak for these people, but, you know, I’ve been doing this work for a long time — people can self-censor. And so why are they self-censoring? Maybe because either people were not able to hear the message, or the message of focusing on racial equity may turn people off, or it may be, “Well, our regulations aren’t about racial equity. We need to talk about X.” But as the COVID-19 era has reminded us, we interpret rules and regulations through our social lenses, right? I see people being more comfortable talking about solving issues because they recognize that we may be in a situation because of things like racism. And I will also point out I saw a headline last week that the Centers for Disease Control has a statement out — and they were described as the “largest federal agency to make such a statement — but where they are saying that the public health disparities that exist are in part due to racism. I mean, they’re just calling it for what it is. I suspect if I tracked that down we would see that that’s not a new concept. But again, we can talk about it freely. We can talk about it now. I think the other thing that I see happening because the Biden administration is using the term “whole of government” in certain areas, that could help tear down the barriers between agencies. So instead of focusing on agency protection we’re focused on the values of getting things done, right? So how do our agencies work together, pool our resources — either funding or figure out how to make our regulations work together — so that we are achieving what society wants. And we see that conversation happening a lot in climate change. The same conversation needs to be happening in solving the clean drinking waters in Indian country. And by “Indian country” I also mean Alaska Native communities. So for instance in the Indian Health Service, which is located in the Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for building clean drinking water systems. Depending on the Indian community the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or the tribe itself, is responsible for providing land access to the Indian Health Service to do that. When I started here at (NTUA) in July of 2019. Because I’ve been doing this — I’ve been here for two decades and worn various hats, people will call me and ask me, “Can you help us noodle through these issues so we can move — you know, figure out how to get our projects done?” The Indian Health Service had reached out to me and said, “We really need your help because the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not given us access to lay water lines in 15 [what are called] allotments, to serve the people living in the allotments. We’ve been going around with them for 18 months.” Pre-pandemic that’s, like, “Okay, let’s figure out how to do this.” But when you think about that in the pandemic, and you think that was July of 2019, and if they had built those waterlines 18 months earlier… I don’t know if these people were part of a statistic, I don’t know who these people are, but that’s part of why we have these statistics, right? I think the pandemic has just turned what has become — and again, I’m saying this [LAUGHTER] having watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington last night — again, even then there was that frustration that good things, good works, good laws become so distanced from what they were supposed to do. It becomes a bureaucratic maze of statistics. These statistics are now human beings. And the other thing I will note is that it’s not rare for me to talk to an office in the federal government that will say, “Bidtah, the only person that died was a Native person, like, in our whole agency. Bidtah, we’re seeing it. I’m feeling it.” I talked to a (UOCA) office not too long ago and they said, “Bidtah, all of my Navajo employees, like, were touched. None of my other employees were touched.” And the person I was talking to is a black woman, you know? So it’s not… That’s the other thing I’m seeing, you know, quite frankly. I’ve had that conversation with a lot of federal employees. It’s not a distant statistic that’s out there; it’s in my agency that Indian employees were affected differently than others.
JOHN: That’s chilling. I want to go back to a piece of a conversation that we’ve had in the past that’s about shared experience and the connection between COVID and possibility for better equity in the future. You have kind of a bright-spot vision for that I think in some ways. Tell me about your thoughts on that.
BIDTAH: Yeah, I started feeling this right of way right when the pandemic happened. And I think it’s because at least in the United States everybody was told to go home, right? So everybody had that shared experience. And then for whatever reason Navajo was front and center in the news right in May with the highest COVID outbreaks. And there was just an understanding that I had never experienced before. Because again, like we said, the lack of clean drinking water in people’s homes is not new. But there are people who I worked with in the Colorado River Basin who just — they had no idea. Or if they knew intellectually they now understood personally. And, you know, and maybe it was just personal because they knew I lived on the Navaho Nation and they were worried about me. And, you know, I could report, “No, no, I’m fine,” but I’m — you know, I’m not the statistic that people are talking about. So that shared vision, or that shared experience of having your world turned upside down I think… So we’re human beings, right? And we all know that we are built to have relationships. We need relationships in order to survive and thrive as a society. I think in this — what’s so exciting to me, and it is a bright spot to me, John, because people could’ve been, like, “Well, whatever. Like, I’m going to my home and I’m fine. I am fine and I don’t care about anybody else.” But that’s not what people did. And that’s not what people are doing, right? We’re seeing it in philanthropy. We’re seeing it in corporations. I mean, even for the cynical among us — and I can be cynical — you know, you could say, “Yeah, but, you know, the corporations are just trying to profit on the moment, and they might be putting out ads but they don’t really mean it.” But still, I mean, they’re touching on that zeitgeist, that we now feel and understand that as a species we do affect one another even if we live on the other side of the planet from each other, right? There is that shared — right, that shared experience of now it’s an understanding. And I think it’s gone from what I felt at the beginning of the pandemic about it being an experience, to now being an understanding, and then taking it one step further to recognizing that… So Mother Nature may have put the virus on us, but we humans are the ones who created systems that have led to interesting outcomes in this country. Now, I haven’t followed this globally but I think people are not seeing the same effects from the virus in their country as they are here, right, whether it’s the high rates of death, or specific groups dying in their country at higher rates. I mean, I’m sure those exist but not at the way it’s happening in the United States. And just knowing full well that we as humans create rules, we can change those rules, that’s what is the biggest change that I’m seeing.
JOHN: That’s great. I think that’s a good spot to end. Bidtah, thanks for joining the podcast, I thought it was a really good — you painted a really detailed picture of what infrastructure looks like without having video, which I think is probably hard to do. And certainly I’m going to poke on this values approach as I interview others on equity issues in the podcast series. So thanks for bringing that up, and thanks for joining the show.
BIDTAH: Oh, it was my pleasure. It was an honor, an honor, an honor. I really appreciate the time, John.
JOHN: Great. Well, have a good day.
BIDTAH: You too.
JOHN: All right, thanks for joining. This was a great interview with Bidtah Becker from the Navajo Nation talking about infrastructure on the reservation, talking about topics like bright spots in a pandemic and how they have brought people together and given us hope to focus on a values-based system. And I think if we think about values as a predecessor to solutions it’s very similar to the way I think in academic circles one might think of combining social and physical infrastructure. And the order of the rollout of those two is super important, right? So if there isn’t capacity in the community to sustain physical infrastructure, the physical infrastructure is just going to be dropped off from a helicopter and never used. But I think when we start thinking about that social infrastructure in terms of values and value systems, and aligning on that value system, in this case leveraging the shared experience from the pandemic, we can see opportunity for change that may lead us to those solutions that last a lot longer, and that bring access to communities that have not ever had access to clean drinking water or sanitation.
JOHN: That’s it for this episode of Audacious Water. If you like the show please rate or review us and tell your colleagues and friends. For more information about Audacious Water visit our website at Audaciouswater.org/podcast. Until next time I’m John Sabo.