Navajo farmers, ranchers still waiting, but other growers resume irrigating

Hannah Grover The Daily Times
The Daily Times

AZTEC — As many local growers drew irrigation water from their ditches Saturday for the first time since a plume of acid mine waste flowed through the area a week ago, farmers and ranchers in Navajo Nation were still waiting for more test results to show that San Juan River water on the reservation is safe for drinking, watering fields, livestock consumption and other uses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released data Saturday from tests taken on the river between Farmington and Shiprock. But that section of the river typically has high variability of metal levels, EPA officials said, and that means more tests are needed.

In the meantime, many of those who live on the reservation are receiving water deliveries. The EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs increased the amount of water being delivered to various Navajo Nation locations on Saturday to 100,000 gallons a day.

Prior to the ditch users outside of the Navajo Nation being told they could open their ditches on Friday, the EPA delivered 328,914 gallons of water to seven agriculture and nine livestock locations.

The ditch owners along the Animas River and the San Juan River outside the Navajo Nation were given word Friday during a meeting at the Farmington Civic Center that it was safe to flush their ditches and start irrigating again.

That news came just in time, several Aztec ditch users said Saturday after flushing their ditches overnight.

Mike Wright and Mike Carruthers went to close the last sluice on the Stacey Ditch in Aztec Saturday morning to send water down the dry ditch bed to the crops.

A few days before the plume hit the Aztec area, Carruthers received news that the acid mine waste was coming down the river.

"We didn't know where it was," Carruthers said.

Carruthers opened the first sluice to the ditch, causing the water to immediately return to the river.

He said the headgate to the Stacey Ditch was never closed, and the ditch has been flushing out the sediment since the plume passed.

The state engineer told ditch owners to flush the ditches to the first sluice for 12 hours before starting to irrigate.

Wright said he had been fortunate and was planning on cutting and baling his hay during the time that the plume went through. While the hay is cut and baled, farmers turn the water off to the field. Wright got his hay baled and cut while the ditch was closed.

"If it went on another week or so, it would have affected me," Wright said.

Joe Jaquez, who is the director of the Halford Independent Ditch, said his garden was beginning to wither by the time he received news that the ditches could be opened.

After he got out of the meeting on Friday, Jaquez went and opened the ditch so that irrigation could start Saturday afternoon.

Jaquez said the state engineer's approval to open the ditches once again "hit at the right time."

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter.