Environmental science

Seven years after the spill, the river turns yellow, Navajo farmers are still not repaid

On Aug. 7, 2015, crews from the Navajo Nation Irrigation Office in Shiprock rushed to close the main gates of two irrigation canals that carry water from the San Juan River toward the fields of hundreds of Navajo farmers. It was the peak growing season in the arid northwestern corner of New Mexico. Some 12,000 acres of crops had been planted. And a disaster was threatening all of them.

Two days earlier, 115 miles upstream in Colorado, the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released some 3 million gallons of acid mine water from the Gold King Mine, during the initial stages of a cleanup operation. Spilling from Cement Creek into the Animas River and then the San Juan, the waterways — poisoned with nearly 540 tons of arsenic, lead, cadmium and other toxic metals — turned a sickly yellow.

“It was coming like a big flow of mustard,” recalled Shawn Mike, one of 222 Diné farmers and ranchers suing the EPA for their losses. The plume ultimately flowed more than 340 miles, coursing through tribal lands and three states to Lake Powell in southern Utah.

Seven years later, despite public promises to promote environmental justice for indigenous communities and its admission of responsibility for the disaster, the EPA still refuses to compensate the farmers. Although the agency has settled lawsuits with state and tribal governments for some $331 million, the Department of Justice, which represents the EPA in court, asserts that individual Navajos — who together are asking for $49 million — have no right to sue.

The impact of the spill hit the irrigators like a one-two punch. First, their crops died from a lack of water when the canals were closed. Then, once the farmers were growing again, they found their produce impossible to sell.

Mike pulls water from the Fruitland ditch, west of Farmington, on land first cultivated by his grandfather. When his fields dried up, he lost over 10,000 corn plants, 1,000 squash plants and several acres of alfalfa.

“Corn is local farmers’ bread-and-butter,” he said. “It’s used in a variety of ways, for eating and traditional uses, so it has a high value. It was a catastrophe.” As the reality of their losses, both financial and cultural, began to sink in, “you could see tears in people’s eyes.”

Among those weeping was Bertha Etsitty, a 71-year-old farmer who with her husband, Allen, works about 20 acres near Shiprock. Their fields are fed by the Hogback ditch, and their views are framed by the silhouettes of distant peaks — Ute Mountain in Colorado, the Carrizos in Arizona, and Shiprock itself. “Our corn was about four feet tall when they closed the gates,” she said. “I knew we were going to lose it all. We even hauled water in and used cups to pour it for the plants. We saved a little of it, but…” she trailed off, leaving the tragic conclusion unspoken.

“Our income is what we grow. We need it to pay our bills and buy school clothes for our grandchildren. We didn’t know how we were going to survive on just our Social Security checks,” she said.

Thanks to the closing of the irrigation ditches, “no contamination reached the fields,” said Steve Austin, senior hydrologist with the Navajo Nation EPA. Within about three weeks the level of contaminants in the San Juan had decreased and the water was declared safe to use. Although the Fruitland canal reopened before the end of August, “many farmers didn’t trust it and wouldn’t use it,” Austin said. Irrigators on the Hogback canal voted to keep that ditch closed until the following spring.

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