Contextual Innovation & Practice Group Receives NSF Grant to Address Navajo Nation Water and Energy Needs


Pamela S Bedient

Navaho Water Tank
Navajo water tank

A decades-long drought and lack of access to electricity on the Navajo Nation have been making headlines for years, but little progress has been made in addressing the needs of the Native American people living on the arid plains of the US Southwest. ARI’s Contextual Innovation and Practice group last month was awarded a significant research grant from the National Science Foundation to apply their unique design process in search of a more effective set of solutions to address the Navajo’s needs for electricity and water.

Researchers from ARI, along with the University of Illinois departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Agricultural and Biological Engineering, have begun working with the Navajo Nation’s Bodaway Gap Chapter to conduct a three-year study of what is most desperately needed and how the need might be met with sensitivity to indigenous identity. Working with the residents on the western edge of the Navajo territory, just east of the Grand Canyon, PI Ann-Perry Witmer, an ARI Senior Research Scientist, and co-PI Peter Sauer, Professor Emeritus in ECE, are identifying community-driven solutions that include solar energy microgrids, entrepreneurial water distribution systems, and other innovations to serve a sparsely populated and unforgiving landscape. A partnership with Moonshot Missions, a Maryland-based non-profit organization, will allow implementation of the infrastructure solutions identified through this research.

“For more than two decades, the Navajo land has been in drought, but news stories from the last couple years have particularly called attention to the situation for the rest of the world,” Witmer said. “Because of that, all sorts of crazy technologies have been dumped upon the Navajo, whether they work or not.” One notable example was a solar-powered humidity condenser, which was given to 500 residents by a start-up firm that promised production of enough water each day to support a household’s drinking needs. Most of these devices now litter Bodaway Gap properties, where they chug without extracting significant water from a desert environment with no appreciable humidity in the air. The water that has been collected, many residents say, tastes of rubber, yet they don’t know how to dispose of the equipment and often express resentment at having to deal with it on their properties.

One of the first things the research team learned while spending time in Bodaway Gap last summer was that, while media reports highlight a drinking water shortage and lack of electricity on the reservation, the Navajo people were less concerned with indoor plumbing or lights in their homes than they were with providing adequate water supply to their cattle and sheep. One resident talked of going through three pick-up trucks in the last couple years because she had to make the arduous journey from her parents’ home on the grazing lands to a water-filling station so she could transport 500 gallons at a time of livestock water to their animals. In years past, earthen dams in the grazing lands would capture snow-melt and rainfall runoff into reservoirs for the livestock, but recent trends toward less rain and snowfall have allowed the reservoirs to go dry.    

 “We don’t want to create another solution that makes false promises and leaves residents frustrated,” Witmer said. “Before we even start talking about solutions, our graduate students and research colleagues will continue to learn from the Navajo what they really need and want. This means spending considerable time visiting and living in Bodaway Gap and talking with the residents there. We can’t consider proposing solutions if we don’t fully understand the context.”