Students Tackle 21st Century Sustainability Challenges on the Navajo Nation

Diné College student and Indige-FEWSS participant Larry Moore demonstrates use of the solar-powered water filtration system to community members on Navajo Nation.

Diné College student and Indige-FEWSS participant Larry Moore demonstrates use of the solar-powered water filtration system to community members on Navajo Nation.

Twelve University of Arizona graduate students have teamed up with undergraduates on the Navajo Nation to design a solar-powered water filtration system that can provide 50 gallons of safe, clean water to 30 Navajo families per day.

The students are part of the first cohort of trainees to participate in a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant that enables an unprecedented collaboration between the UA and Diné College, which serves a predominantly Navajo student population. The goal is to teach the next generation of STEM professionals how to confront food, energy and water challenges among indigenous communities while letting traditional values guide their work.

The project – called Indigenous Food, Energy and Water Security and Sovereignty, or Indige-FEWSS – combines research internships, teaching and cultural immersion.

"We want to enable these trainees to tackle critical, real-world food, energy and water problems with an understanding of culture and sovereignty of indigenous people," said Karletta Chief, associate professor of environmental science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who is leading the project.

"Through Indige-FEWSS, I'm able to fulfill a promise I made to my family as a young girl, saying that I'll never forget where I come from and I'll never think that I am better than anybody, but instead be grounded and remember my place in the universe," said Nikki Tulley, a UA doctoral student in environmental science. "My place in the universe will always be bringing resources and services to the Navajo Nation."

With an area the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the United States, but some areas have never been connected to central power and water due to rugged terrain and low population density. Today, the Navajo Nation estimates that of its 357,000 residents, up to 35% don't have running water in the home.

A Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency policy prohibits human consumption of water from unregulated sources. Due to the lack of public water systems, Navajos living in rural areas regularly drive long distances to haul water for drinking, cooking and bathing. Often the water comes from unregulated and untested sources, such as livestock wells and springs that can exceed drinking water standards for contaminants like arsenic and uranium, an impact of earlier mining activities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the use of unregulated water sources is the greatest public health risk associated with drinking water for the Navajo Nation. A study published in 2018 by the Navajo Department of Health reported that compared with the non-Hispanic white population in Arizona, Navajos have a higher incidence and mortality of liver, kidney, stomach and gallbladder cancers.

Meanwhile, the Indian Health Service reported that it would cost $200 million to provide access to safe drinking water in all Navajo homes. Without access to such funds, the Indige-FEWSS graduate students – half of whom are Native American – and undergraduate students from Diné College have set their sights on a mobile, solar-powered water purification system instead.  

Letting traditional Diné culture and ecological knowledge guide the process, the students designed a solar-powered water filtration system that can purify up to 1,500 gallons of water per day, removing nearly 100% of dissolved contaminants such as arsenic and uranium – well below the concentrations to meet drinking water standards – without the need to be connected to centralized water or power.

Their $25,000 solar-powered water filtration system largely comprises materials available at a hardware store, including, for example, two 275-gallon caged tote tanks, a few water filters and some PVC pipes. The system's design reflects lifestyles and culture on the reservation: It is mobile for hauling and can be built with readily available products, explained Christopher Yazzie, an environmental engineering graduate student in the Indige-FEWSS program.

"Tó éí ííÅ„á át'é," said Benita Litson, director of Diné College's Land Grant Office. It's Diné for "Water is life," a common refrain on the reservation. "And purification makes it safe and clean."

Using the system, communities on the reservation can continue to haul water from wells but can ensure its safety and cleanliness.

"Trainees in the Indige-FEWSS program are not doing research to be put on the shelf, but we're doing research to have real impact and solve real problems that our community has," said Chief, who grew up on the Navajo Nation.

The Indige-FEWSS program is only a first step towards addressing food, energy and water insecurity among indigenous communities.

"Our vision at the University of Arizona is to develop a diverse workforce with intercultural awareness and expertise in sustainable food, energy and water systems," she said.

Other UA faculty involved in the program include Robert Arnold, professor emeritus of chemical and environmental engineering; Benedict Colombi, professor of American Indian studies; Murat Kacira, professor of biosystems engineering; Kimberly Ogden, professor of chemical and environmental engineering; Erin Ratcliff, assistant professor of materials science and engineering; Kelly Simmons-Potter, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Valerie Shirley, assistant professor of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies.

Under their advisement, each UA student will receive a graduate degree in a science, technology, math or engineering field such as electrical engineering or materials science while also receiving a minor in Indige-FEWSS.

Following graduation, both Tulley and Yazzie intend to create businesses that address their community's need for clean, safe water. Yazzie is considering a business focused on miniature versions of the filtration system, built more cheaply, for single-family use.

"This work represents core aspects of the University of Arizona’s mission—working together, expanding potential, tackling big challenges and enriching lives," said UA President Robert C. Robbins. "This partnership between the UA and Diné College gives students a meaningful, hands-on opportunity to make a real difference for people living on the Navajo Nation by collaborating on innovative solutions to meet the need for clean water. At the same time, these future scientists and engineers are gaining the skills they need to take on related problems involving food and energy. I look forward to seeing the impact of the important work being undertaken by Dr. Karletta Chief and her team."

The Indige-FEWSS program is supported by grant award #DGE1735713 from the National Science Foundation.