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The Utah State Legislature is urged to bring power and water to a Navajo community

Funding request unites politically opposed sides
Posted at 3:24 PM, Feb 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-22 23:37:16-05

SALT LAKE CITY — Evangeline Gray walked from room to room in the Utah State Capitol to meet with lawmakers, asking for money.

She lives in Westwater, a community that has no power or water. It's right next to Blanding, where residents enjoy modern appliances and internet access.

"To get the house heated, we still use wood and fire," Gray told FOX 13.

Gray hauls in water to a tank at her home. A little bit of solar helps provide some power for a refrigerator.

"We’re still in a third world community per se and we don’t need that," Gray said. "We need water and electricity like everybody else."

Accompanied by Alastair Bitsóí of Utah Diné Bikéyah, Gray and other residents of Westwater are asking the Utah State Legislature to fund $500,000 to help build infrastructure into the community of about 29 families on roughly 120 acres of land.

"It comes down to which government agency wants to help these citizens who are in desperate need of basic services that the rest of America takes for granted," Bitsóí told FOX 13.

Westwater exists in an interesting space, politically speaking.

"Westwater sits next to the city of Blanding. It’s on a piece of ground that’s owned by the Navajo Nation but it’s not reservation land," said Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding. "So it’s fee title land, owned by the nation. It’s land that’s been occupied long before the town of Blanding."

"Fee simple" land is owned by the Navajo Nation, but it is basically private land with taxes going to San Juan County. Because of those issues, Westwater resident Pamela King said it has gone without water and power.

"Well, it’s Navajo Nation. Well, it’s the city. Well, it’s Utah," she said. "It’s just kind of been bouncing around."

The project is expected to cost millions, Utah Diné Bikéyah said. A number of different sources have been coming together to fund it. Utah State Treasurer David Damschen, who oversees the Navajo Trust Fund, is utilizing some funds. Utah Governor Gary Herbert included it in his proposed budget, and the Navajo Nation is also supportive.

Helping Westwater residents has also united Utah Diné Bikéyah and Rep. Lyman, who are normally on opposite sides of issues in southeastern Utah.

Rep. Lyman, a staunch supporter of President Trump, opposed the creation of Bears Ears National Monument and backed the president's decision to shrink it. Utah Diné Bikéyah strongly advocates for the monument and its preservation.

While Bears Ears is a subject they disagree vehemently on, Westwater is one the two sides find common ground. Rep. Lyman said the people of Westwater are his neighbors and friends and they deserve this funding.

"Political differences aside, it’s a human need," said Bitsóí. "I’m glad that we can stand together in that regard to help resolve this plight among our community members."

Utah Diné Bikéyah has said ideas for providing water and electricity to Westwater may not necessarily involve utility lines, but investments in solar and leech fields for septic.

In the Utah State Legislature, funding is always a fight. But Rep. Lyman said he was confident the money could be found to help Westwater residents.

"In this situation, it’s hard for anybody to not recognize the need," he said. "This community is the highest priority."

King said she hoped lawmakers would step up and fund the request. The legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee could decide on granting the money as early as next week.

"We’re just praying and hoping people hear us and have a heart to see our community and see they get modern electricity," King said.

Utah Diné Bikéyah said it was also raising funds from the public. Anyone interested in donating can contribute to the group and designate it for Westwater.