Augusta Liddic/The Daily TimesJulia Benally does her laundry at a Shiprock laundry mat so she would not risk damaging the water pipe lines at her home in
Augusta Liddic/The Daily Times Julia Benally does her laundry at a Shiprock laundry mat so she would not risk damaging the water pipe lines at her home in Red Mesa, Utah. (Augusta Liddic)
SHIPROCK — Even though Julia Benally has a functioning washer and dryer at her home in Red Mesa, Utah, she drove 40 miles to a laundromat in this town to do her laundry.

"We don't want to damage the water pipe lines again," Benally said Thursday while loading her clothes into a machine.

Benally is just one of more than 2,000 Navajo Nation residents who in recent weeks lost water after freezing temperatures caused pipes to burst. Although her water has been restored, she is worried that any undue stress could cause them to burst again. The situation is so bad on parts of the reservation that some people have resorted to using water from livestock wells.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, who also lost water, declared an emergency last week.

When the pipes were frozen, no water flowed. Water expands when it freezes and creates cracks in the water lines. In the weeks that followed, as the water thawed, it flooded out the cracks.

Water pressure dropped drastically across the entire reservation, forcing some families to relocate and some businesses to close temporarily.

"The water pressure was really low," said Jamie Yazzie, assistant manager for Denny's in St. Michaels, Ariz. "We can't function without water for sanitary reasons."

The restaurant closed for three days this week, and opened Thursday, after they made sure that the water was safe to drink.

"It came out like how it would if it was off for a long time," said Yazzie, whose water was restored Tuesday.


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"It was brown at first, and just very low pressure."

Even hospitals have considered temporary closures.

"If the water pressure gets too low, we will have to close down the (Fort Defiance) hospital," said Erny Zah, spokesman for the Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation.

Zah said the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is encouraging people to use whatever water they have sparingly. Otherwise, the situation could worsen.

"Stagger laundry runs, do less laundry, wait for car washes," Zah said.

The tribe also is concerned about the kind of water that people are resorting to using.

"Wherever we can get water, they are getting water," Zah said.

Some are buying bottled water in the stores, though others are so far out that the local stores are sold out of bottled water. In those areas, some are pulling water from the livestock wells.

"That water is for the animals. It's not safe," Zah said.

Utility officials are encouraging people to boil all water not from the store at least one minute, and then let it cool. The also added that they are conducting additional tests on water in the pipes to ensure that it has not been contaminated from seepage related to the low pressure.

"We are issuing this alert as a precaution," said utility Deputy General Manager Rex Kontz.

Kontz addressed Navajo Nation officials during the winter session this week and took much of the heat for not being better prepared for this year's freeze.

Delegates from the Navajo Nation Council pressed him on why the utility was not more prepared, and why it had not expected the situation given that many of the pipes date back to the 1950s.

Those older pipes are made of concrete and clay, and are hard to repair. That means repaired pipes break easily.

Kontz gave no timeline for the end of the emergency. He gave no cost for repairs. And it was not clear what would prevent the situation from happening again.

"We are responding to all outage calls," Kontz said, estimating that employees are working 15-hour days. "It will take some time to get to each one. The crews have to travel between the locations and the repair is unknown until they arrive on site. We are doing our very best to reduce the waiting time."

The Navajo Engineering and Construction Authority also is helping the utility, according to a Thursday press release.

In the meantime, many people are using neighbors, local grocery stores and other sources to find relief.

"It takes (repair crews) a few days to come out," said Benally, who said she doesn't mind driving to Shiprock to do laundry. Her alternative is to drive 70 miles to the nearest grocery store to buy bottled water.

"It's really bad in Red Mesa," she said.

The reports have come from all over the Navajo Nation, though it seems that most of them are in the rural areas. 

In the utility's Shiprock district, more than 400 water outages were reported the most of any district, though many people in town said they were not concerned.

"It's just kind of normal," said Wolf Atson, manager of the City Market grocery store in Shiprock.

Atson said people regularly buy water in bulk because it is hard to come by in the rural areas, so they usually are prepared for any situation that would keep them from getting water.

"We sell five pallets of water a week," Atson said, explaining that is equivalent to about 5,400 16-ounce bottles of water. "We always sell water like crazy."