The people who live in the northwest corner of New Mexico consider Darlene Arviso to be a living saint. “Everybody knows me around here. They’ll be waving at me,” she says from behind the wheel of the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission water truck. “They call me the water lady.”
That’s because Arviso hauls water for tribe members of the Navajo Nation, where, on average, residents use 7 gallons a day to drink, cook, bathe and clean. The average person in the U.S. uses 100 gallons a day.
Arviso drives to 250 homes a month filling their plastic barrels, buckets, jars and whatever containers the families have. When people see the giant yellow truck coming down the road, Navajo member Georgianna Johnson says it’s like they’ve seen Santa coming down the chimney.
“You know what we do? ‘The water truck’s coming! Get the buckets ready!’ We get all happy. Today’s the day I’m going to take a bath,” Johnson says.
“Water’s got to do with everything. It really does. To wash the dishes, my aunt tells us the rinsing water is still clean. She said, ‘Use that the next time when you gonna wash dishes.’ So that’s how we make the water stretch,” she says.
About 40 percent of the Navajo Nation has to make their water stretch. The water here in Smith Lake comes from the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission well, about 50 miles away.
For more than three decades, the mission has provided water to this Navajo community.
But the once-a-month water truck deliveries are far from the perfect solution. The roads often become impassable in the winter and barrels run dry. Many resort to melting snow or collecting water from livestock basins.
So the mission has sought help from George McGraw, a Los Angeles-based human rights lawyer and the founder of a nonprofit called DIGDEEP. It provides water systems to developing countries.
“It really is an incredible injustice. If you’re born Navajo, you’re 67 times more likely not to have a tap or toilet in your house than if you’re born black, white, Asian or Hispanic American,” McGraw says.
After several surveys McGraw’s team found clean water 1,800 feet below the surface and will begin digging a well this spring. Once DIGDEEP raises enough money it will pipe the water to people’s homes.
Arviso laughs when she recalls the day she got running water 15 years ago. “We were all happy seeing the water and we let our water run for like five minutes in the restroom and then in the kitchen,” she says.
Arviso is the only one in her extended family with running water so her sisters, her four adult children and grandchildren all come to her house to shower, do laundry and fill their water barrels.