Electricity arrives in Westwater community
by David Boyle
Members of the Westwater community and officials from half-a-dozen organizations celebrated the arrival of electricity to their community at a dinner at Utah State University’s Blanding campus on September 16.
Westwater residents have done without continuous electricity and running water for decades despite having neighbors across the canyon in Blanding with those same modern amenities. That changed when the lights turned on for the first time on September 1.
Every night before September 1, Westwater resident Bessie Begay would navigate her house with a small flashlight in tow. Something she’s done for so long that she almost had a hard time kicking the habit.
“It’s wonderful, really wonderful, at least I don’t have to run around with my little light. My first night we had the lights I still ran around with the light.”
Begay isn’t the only one getting used to electricity in the home. She says a young grandchild flicks the light on and off in amazement.
While Begay is grateful to be able to read her JA Jance mystery novels without a flashlight in hand at night, she does look forward to having running water soon.
“They told me a year, but we’ll be glad when we get it, just like electricity it’s a long time coming but they got it done.”
The arrival of electricity is also a relief of financial burden for resident Lena Hutchinson-Lovell,. She shared that using a generator to provide power in her home cost about $20 a day for about six hours of energy.
“Now that I can turn on the porch light, it keeps my kids safe at night when they come home late. It feels good.”
With the arrival of power, local resident Terry Hutchinson is also anxious to be able to get a mobile home hooked up on his family lot. Moving closer to medical services is important to Hutchinson who has had some recent health issues.
Westwater Community President Thomas Chee echoed the voices of his community thanking all those that had a hand in bringing utilities to Westwater, a process over 30 years in the making.
The 29 homesteads that make up Westwater are located just west of the annexation boundaries of Blanding. Those 120 acres were purchased from the Bureau of Land Management by the Navajo Nation in 1986.
Despite being owned by the Navajo Nation the land is located off the reservation and is miles from existing tribal infrastructure.
The community’s uniqueness has presented jurisdictional challenges for providing utilities. Still, community advocates have brought together a group of state, tribal, local, and religious entities over the past few years to resolve those challenges.
In January 2020 a $500,000 request for funds to address the issue was submitted as part of Governor Gary Herbert’s annual budget.
In February 2020 Special Counsel and Advisor to the Governor and Attorney General for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk and southeastern Utah representative Phil Lyman (R) made the request to a state subcommittee to see the budget funded.
At that same session community members of Westwater, and the non-profit Utah Dine Bikeyah petitioned the legislature for the funds to provide power and water to the community.
The request was granted as part of the annual budget but was later cut by the legislature as a response to the uncertainty around the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. The $500,000 was later approved in 2021 and in 2022 the state set aside $3.5 million in funds from the Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to bring the utilities to Westwater.
The Navajo Nation appropriated $3 million of their ARPA funds to the project and an additional $2.5 million in their latest budget approval for a total of $5.5 million for the project.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also pledged $500,000 to the project.
Additional partners on the project include the City of Blanding and San Juan County, as well as the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS).
With powerlines now in place, NTUA will purchase power from the city of Blanding and then meter and bill residents for their use of electricity. A similar agreement is in place for the arrival of water.
While commitments to bring water are firm a timeline is not entirely clear, there is hope to have running water in the community in the next year.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez shared his excitement for the news.
“This is life-changing for these families who have lived without electricity in their homes for so many years, some who have never lived with electricity at all. Electricity not only provides lighting, heating, and other basic amenities, but it also opens doors to more opportunities. We are very grateful and appreciative to everyone who helped to finally deliver electricity to these homes, including Gov. Cox, Lt. Gov. Henderson, NTUA, and many others. The work doesn’t end here — the next step is to deliver running water to these homes,”
Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson said her heart swelled with joy when she heard the news.
“Commonplace in Blanding, the sight of power lines swooping from house to house in Westwater marks the fulfillment of a long-overdue promise to the Diné just outside Blanding. I won’t understate the difficulty of this project, but I can’t overstate the level of collaboration and generosity that got us here. I’m grateful for so many helping hands and deeply happy for the residents of Westwater.”
Speaking at the event was one of the 12 Apostles of the church Dieter Uchtdorf.
“The Church is so grateful when we can pitch in and help, and it shows when we counsel together we are all on the same team. I think if we move closer together and lift where we stand, no situation in the world could keep us from being successful.”
“It’s a small group and about 100 people affected — but are we our brother’s keeper? I think we are,” Elder Uchtdorf said. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s one or two or a thousand or 29 homes. When we are here, we see the need, and that’s what we need to do.”
Among the representatives at the event included church representatives Elder Jose Alonso, and Elder Todd Larkin, Utah Special Counsel Larry Echo Hawk, State Representative Phil Lyman, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Charlaine Tso, Navajo Department of Water Resources Hydrologist Ryan Barton, San Juan County Commissioners Bruce Adams, and Willie Grayeyes, Blanding Mayor Logan Monson, and members of the Blanding City Council.