Watching and waiting for rain

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CROWNPOINT, N.M. ? Four months into one of the worst droughts in Navajo history, practically everyone is worried about water and watching the skies for rain. It's the kind of drought that hasn't been seen in more than 100 years and things are expected to get much worse before they better.

Eight dams on the Navajo Nation have no water and shallow wells that supply water to humans and animals are drying up, said tribal officials.

At Navajo Mountain, a remote community on the western side of the reservation north of Flagstaff, the 267,000-gallon tank that is the only source of water was down to less than one foot until emergency supplies were trucked in over 12 miles of rocky dirt roads in mid June.

But the most disturbing sign of the 2002 drought is the number of cattle and horse carcasses littering the landscape at parched and cracked lakebeds and alongside highways filled with drifting sand.

Under these conditions, livestock owners, tribal officials, elders and concerned landowners filled the local chapter house here the first week in July to talk about the devastating impacts of one of the worst droughts in Navajo history.

"No rain, no grass, no feed, no water," said Anselm Morgan, director of the Local Governance Support Center. "It's really getting bad out here. There's a lot of anxiety about livestock reduction and how we are going to survive this drought."

Morgan and his staff organized a horseback ride, motorcade and two-day emergency drought symposium on July 8 and 9 to urge tribal officials to conduct a range assessment of the Eastern portion of the nation and to provide assistance to struggling livestock owners and their herds.

Morgan said they are trying to educate people about the need to voluntarily reduce their herds in light of a severe and ongoing drought that some predict could last anywhere from seven to 20 years.

Dwindling water supplies, deteriorating rangeland and hundreds of livestock dying from thirst and starvation forced Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye to declare a state of emergency in late March.

Since then, things have only gotten worse, with precipitation less than one-fifth of what it normally is this time of year, according to tribal officials.

"This is the worst drought in 50 years," said Alex Dinetale, a hydrologist with the Navajo Water Resources Department. "It's going to be worse than the 1996 drought."

At Many Farms Lake, more than 10,000 bass and catfish died when the lakebed went completely dry. Dinetale estimated that as many as 10,000 livestock may perish because of the drought, and conditions are expected to get worse later in the summer.

"The problem is that there's just nothing to eat out there and most of the 7,500 stock ponds on the nation have dried up," he said. "Even in high elevations where you normally see more precipitation, there's no forage for the animals to eat."

Cattle and sheep are eating salt brush and greasewood that are detrimental to their systems, he said, and many are suffering from weakened immune systems that make them susceptible to a broad range of diseases, including botulism and black leg, a neurological disease that kills cattle in 48 hours.

Coupled with widespread overgrazing, the lack of precipitation is taking a heavy toll on Navajo land, livestock and the thousands of families who raise them.

"It's getting too expensive to keep them healthy," said Lowlee Neswood, Jr. of Greasewood, Ariz. "We have to buy hay, grain and vitamin shots to try to keep them strong. And now we have to haul water to them all the time."

He said he used to get about $700 for a pair of cows, but was forced to sell many of his stock for only $300 a pair. He said he can only afford to feed and water a few.

Neswood said the community well at Greasewood is only pumping a little over 55 gallons per day before it is reduced to a trickle, leaving many people waiting for hours for the well to recharge.

"This time next year we probably won't have any water," he said. "I don't know what we'll do."

In Cameron, people are waiting as long as six to 10 hours in lines at the community well, then driving long distances home loaded down with barrels of water for their families and their sheep.

In Din? culture, sheep are sacred and have sustained Navajo people for generations. They are part of the ceremonies, basic livelihood and traditional way of life. To have sheep is an indicator of wealth and well being. Likewise, horses are honored with songs and in ceremony for their role as being "water gods who bring dark clouds" according to Din? teachings.

Now many of the animals that make up much of the traditional Navajo lifestyle are on the auction block at bargain prices, reluctantly being sold by owners who can no longer afford to feed them.

Emergency cattle auctions are being held regularly throughout the reservation to sell cattle and horses that would otherwise perish without any grass to feed on. Along dusty roadsides, hay sellers are doing brisk business as more Navajo families resort to buying hay to feed their livestock.

One hay seller, K-Diamond Haulers, said about 70 people a day load their pickup trucks and horse trailers with bales of alfalfa bound for outlying areas of the reservation where there is no vegetation to feed starving livestock.

At $10 a bale, it's difficult and expensive continuously to provide hay. Many people simply can't afford the cost and have resorted to selling their livestock in a severely depressed market where malnourished cows stagger in and bony horses are being sold to slaughterhouses.

In some areas of the 26,000-square-mile reservation, it hasn't rained or snowed since last October, depleting water supplies and increasing demand on the 900 windmills across the nation.

Near Crownpoint, Morgan said some of the windmills have dried up because aquifers have dropped and water levels are too far down to be reached.

"This is a turning point for the Navajo people," he said. "Even though the grassroots people don't want to hear it, we have to sell our livestock ? maybe reduce the numbers by half ? and stop overgrazing the land. If we don't, the land will never recover. I'm telling people to sell their stock now because the market is only going to get worse in the fall. If we don't do it voluntarily, nature will do it for us."

At the drought symposium, there was also quiet talk of Navajo prophecies and predictions about a time when the Din? are visited by drought, dust storms, heat waves, wildfires and hardship.

Some say these are signs the people must heed that we need to start "living right" again and making mineral offerings for rain.

"They're saying we gave up too many aspects of traditional culture ? the language, the ceremonies and our traditional values," Morgan said. "They say we're watching too much violence and acting that out. Now we are paying for it."

Meanwhile, Dinetale is watching closely for signs of the summer monsoons that usually come in July and August. This year, things look uncertain.

"It could go either way," he said, referring to indicators that show the monsoons may not deliver much-needed rain because it has been so dry for so long. "We're just watching and waiting."