Navajo Communities Get Electricity For First Time, Oh No It’s Government Spending!

Not long after America collectively said no thanks in the midterms to Republicans — who ran the gamut from those who wanted to defund government to those who wanted to dismantle democracy itself — Yr Editrix’s Twitter feed served up this little reminder of what government can do to promote the general welfare and effect the safety and happiness of The People.

Thanks to President Biden’s infrastructure bill, remote locations on the Navajo Nation reservation are receiving electricity — for the first time, ever.

Crews from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bringing electricity to Navajo country.

Nothing terribly controversial or monumental there, but without federal money, there would be a lot more families on the Navajo Nation who’d still be driving long distances every week or two to buy gas or diesel to run generators. It’s the largest tribal reservation in the US by territory, covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and southeast Utah, but nearly 14,000 families still lack connections to the electric grid. (Another 18,000 lack connections to clean water infrastructure.) The money just hasn’t been available, although somehow the rest of the country is on the grid. Might be nice if America could manage that well ahead of the centennial of New Deal projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority (1933) or the Rural Electrification Act (1936).

Republicans might call it “pork,” but the pandemic relief bills, from the March 2020 CARES Act to the 2021 American Rescue Plan, have included funding to finally connect remote reservation communities to the grid. (And given that the Navajo Nation was especially hard hit by COVID, having reliable electric power — for clinics and homes where people need oxygen and other medical devices — isn’t just a luxury, either.) That funding was supplemented by roughly a billion dollars from the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill passed last fall, and by a portion of another $272.5 million from the climate bill to help tribal governments make infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

As a 2021 Brookings Institution report noted, the grid in Navajo country is built primarily to carry coal-generated power, and will need significant upgrades to handle renewables effectively. The Navajo Nation is also pursuing wind and solar in a big way, although here we’re focusing on getting folks on the grid at all.

In any case, the money is finally coming to the Navajo Nation and other tribes. The pandemic aid and infrastructure money will boost ongoing efforts by nonprofits, the American Public Power Association and utility companies across the Southwest, and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) to get power to communities that haven’t had it. In August, the Navajo Nation Council passed an agreement for allocation of $1 billion in federal funding, to get aid for power and water projects to communities that need it.

“This is for all of the families that have to haul water and use generators, especially those who live in very remote areas. We are going to change lives forever beginning today. Lives will be forever changed because of this resolution.” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Mark Freeland said.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also said he hoped the funding would bring electricians, engineers, and other tradespeople back to Navajo communities to stay, and that adequate infrastructure on the reservation will mean fewer young people migrating away just to have modern utilities, to which we will again add, “for fuckssakes, it’s about time.”

Unfortunately, as the Salt Lake Tribunereported in April, red tape from federal, state, and tribal governments may slow the process of turning the funding into utility connections. In Clark Village, Utah, one family, Harry Clark and Marilyn Haycock, had solar panels installed on their home by a nonprofit during the pandemic, which was nice. But Clark and Haycock aren’t sure what group it was and can’t contact it for maintenance, if it still exists. Worse, the solar panels may mean they get pushed to the back of the line for connection to the grid, even though the solar installation isn’t really adequate to their needs. On the whole, they’d rather be on the grid.

One of their in-laws, Yeula Atene, uses Clark’s and Haycock’s refrigerator for her meat and vegetables because her generator doesn’t put out enough juice to run a fridge. She may have to wait quite a while to get on the grid for a different reason, because Native people always have more paperwork (we believe government is good, but only when bureaucracy isn’t a nightmare).

For Atene, there’s another barrier to getting power. Her home needs to be deemed an official homesite through the Navajo Land Department to get connected to the grid or get solar panels, she says. Getting a homesite designation can take years, with a lengthy process of approvals from families with grazing permits, signoffs from archaeologists, fish and wildlife services, environmental reviews, surveys and grazing officer clearances. […]

The families have been told the Oljato Chapter, the local government that oversees the area that’s home to Clark Village, has prioritized homes for NTUA to connect. The chapter, one of 110 municipalities inside the Navajo Nation, doesn’t have a physical building and is hard to contact. The families in Clark Village aren’t sure if they’re in line for power.

“It seems like there are people just ignoring us,” Clark said.

All told, as the Tribune found out, it could take another year or two before Clark Village gets connected to the grid. President Nez, the paper said in April, has advocated for President Joe Biden to issue an executive order to speed up the electrification of rural homes on reservations. We haven’t seen whether that’s actually happened, although the administration did issue a detailed guidance for distributing a total of $13 billion of Infrastructure Law funds for tribal governments. We went down a rabbit hole looking for any mention of an executive order on streamlining the approval process, and it may very well be out there. Or not!

That said, the pandemic and infrastructure funding is indeed making its way to remote communities, and it’s making lives better already. In Westwater, Utah, a community where the land is owned by the Navajo Nation although it’s not inside reservation borders, electricity was finally connected to all 29 homes in September, after decades of promises, plans, and funding falling through. Folks bought air conditioners and washing machines, or looked forward to running groundwater pumps without hauling in diesel, or just to “using their microwaves and leaving their devices plugged in.”

Westwater resident Bessie Begay told the Colorado Sun that having reliable power would mean her grandson wouldn’t have to do his homework by the light of a lantern anymore: “Sometimes the light goes dim and he can’t see, so I bring out my flashlight. I think it’s ruining his eyes.” Here’s what happened when power came on the first day, September 1:

“I was happy. I was really happy. They turned it on in the afternoon, and I was saying, ‘I’m going to have light!’” Begay said. She and her family laughed that night when, out of habit, they started using their lanterns and forgot all about the electricity.

“You can turn on a light. We can go to the bathroom without sitting in the dark. I just love it. My grandkid, he turned it off and on for a while,” Begay said. “His eyes were big and he goes, ‘Grandma, you really do have light!’”

And now the community can start working on getting a municipal water system, here in the 21st century. Damned well about time.

[Lakota Man on Twitter / Salt Lake Tribune / Colorado Sun / The Paper (Albuquerque) / Brookings Institution / Photo: LA Department of Water and Power]

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