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Navajo utility working to provide electricity to more homes

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By Kathy Helms -- The Gallup Independent

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) - More than 18,000 families live without electricity on the Navajo Nation.

Walter Haase, general manager of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and fairly new to the vast reservation, said he was surprised to learn that so many Navajos are left in the dark.

''One of NTUA's major focuses going forward is to provide services to folks who don't have basic service,'' he said.

Cassandra Begay knows what it's like to be without power. Her home is just a mile and a half from Arizona Highway 264, where electric transmissions lines hang so near, yet so far away.

Another five families live in the area - all without electricity.

''We use kerosene lamps at night, and then some of us that can afford it, we have generators for electricity,'' Begay said.

For heat, the family uses a wood-burning stove. For cooking, the family uses propane. For refrigeration, Begay puts the food outside when it's cold.

''Other than that, I go out daily and get some meat. Just like right now, we went out and got some meat, and we have to cook the whole thing today,'' she said pointing to two packages of beef on the kitchen table.

Without electricity, the family can't pump water, either, assuming they had water to pump.

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Asked whether she would like to have electricity, Begay said, ''Oh, that would be wonderful.''

Navajo Council Delegate Curran Hannon said he also used propane before electricity was run to his home site.

''Those people back in there, they've been wanting electricity for so long, it's just that they don't have the money to get the lines run to them,'' he said.

The NTUA recently approved a hike in electric rates that will help rebuild a lot of the utility's aging infrastructure, Haase said. But that doesn't leave the utility with much to expand the system to those families who don't have service.

In 2002, a federal program called the federal Navajo Electrification Demonstration Project was supposed to provide $85 million, or $15 million a year for five years. But as with other federal programs for Navajo, the appropriations didn't come through.

Haase said the tribe has received about $10.8 million, which went to providing electric hookups for 1,172 families.

''That's a far cry from 18,000; and if we keep going at the pace they're talking about going in, 100 years from now, we still wouldn't have everyone hooked up,'' he said.

Another hurdle for the utility is overcoming its backlog of work orders, which at one point stood at 3,000. That has dwindled to 900.

Haase said the utility has evaluated projects from each of the tribe's five agencies to see where it could make the most impact. The utility looked at main power lines and the possibility of building laterals off those lines to get as many people connected as money becomes available.

''We're trying to build ourselves into a situation that it's not going to take 100 years to take care of these 18,000 families that are out there today,'' he said.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.