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Utah community has no running water or power and lawmakers are being urged to fix it

Posted at 4:57 PM, Sep 22, 2021

WESTWATER, Utah — Renae Gene welcomed the politicians into her home.

"I never expected this many people in my yard," she told FOX 13 as members of the legislature, the state treasurer, the vice-president of the Navajo Nation and a few news reporters wandered around.

Gene lives here in Westwater, a tiny community of about 30 homes right outside Blanding that has no running water or power.

"We had to use oil and candles and stuff before 2010," she said, explaining how she and her family get by. "We try to do the best to make everything work."

She has some solar energy now. A couple of times a week, she trucks in water for her neighbors to also use.

"Before winter we try to get wood as much as we can because it’s pretty cold," Gene said, motioning to a pile of wood outside her home used for heating.

Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson pointed to Blanding — within eyesight — where homes had manicured green lawns.

"It makes no sense that we have a community living like this right here in our state. We need to take care of our own," she told FOX 13. "These are citizens of the state of Utah that deserve to have running water. That deserve to have electricity, that deserve to have political leaders who can come together to finally solve this problem."

Why the community of Westwater doesn't have infrastructure in 2021 is complicated. The land is technically owned by the Navajo Nation, which purchased it in 1986 from the Bureau of Land Management for its members. But it's also not directly tied to the tribe, so it's also a part of Utah.

"The leaders at that time had their hearts in the right place. They bought the land for the people with hopes I’m sure they were going to bring water and power someday soon," Navajo Nation Vice-President Myron Lizer said in an interview with FOX 13 on Wednesday. "Well, that someday soon turned to 35 years. How does that happen? Well the politics and government and all the bureaucracy and red tape and bottlenecks."

Lt. Gov. Henderson arranged for members of the Utah State Legislature to fly down to Blanding to see Westwater for themselves. She has been pushing for the legislature to spend federal stimulus money to get water to the community, bringing together Blanding city leaders, the Navajo Nation and others to finally make it happen. But the project could end up costing millions of dollars.

"This is going to be a huge project when all is said and done," said Vice-President Lizer.

In 2020, Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, pushed his colleagues in the legislature to appropriate $500,000 to help the people of Westwater. He pushed for weeks to get that money.

"It’s one of those things that if we can’t get it done this year, I don’t know that we’ll have the opportunity to do it again," he said Wednesday. "I’m determined. The Lt. Governor’s determined. I think it’s going to happen."

With a lot of American Rescue Plan Act money to spend this year, Utah lawmakers have been getting hit with a lot of funding requests. Asked why they don't just move to nearby Blanding, Gene replied: "This is our community and home."

Some residents of Westwater have also heard the promises for aid before. Gladys Cly listened to the politicians, then threw her arms into the air and vented at them.

"There’s one too many promises," she said. "I’ve been here. It’s all been broken."

"Any promises that were made by the city of Blanding to get water here, that’s too big for Blanding," replied Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green.

"If you’re going to do something, just tell the person it might happen or it won't," Cly told him.

"There’s no promise, there’s hope," he said.

Lt. Gov. Henderson afterward thanked Cly for sharing her frustrations with the legislators. After visiting Gene's home and driving around Westwater, some lawmakers appeared willing to help.

"I think we all can see there’s a need here," said Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, who is the Utah State Senate's budget chief. "This can be done."

He told FOX 13 he believed they could give a few million dollars to help with infrastructure needs. The city of Blanding recently voted to allow Westwater to hook up to its systems and tribal entities can help with electricity. Some discussed funding a well project in Blanding that would benefit both communities.

"I've always wanted us to be a community," said Rep. Lyman. "Not two communities."

Gene thanked them all for coming and told FOX 13 she hoped they would help out.

"It would be nice," she said. "It would be really, really nice to have it where I could just go inside, flick on my heater and just say 'Yes!'"