The backbone of any successful economy has long been quality infrastructure. While this has been true for much of the United States for the past century, this has not been true of the infrastructure investment within the Navajo Nation. We encourage President Trump to recognize and address this disparity by including significant infrastructure spending within the Navajo Nation as one of the top priorities of this administration.
As President Trump rolls out his agenda, the infrastructure needs of the Navajo Nation must not be forgotten. The people of the Navajo Nation are strong and independent, but our opportunities for economic growth are severely limited by our lack of sufficient infrastructure. Throughout the course of American history, the Navajo Nation has been left behind on infrastructure investment, but this administration should endeavor to address this historic disparity.
The Navajo Nation remains one of the largest areas within the United States without adequate investment in rural electrification. When other communities received financing and eventually loan forgiveness for rural electrification, the Navajo Nation received no such support. Thirty-five percent of homes in the Navajo Nation lack access to electricity, running water, wastewater, and other utility services. In comparison, across the United States, less than one half of 1 percent are without indoor plumbing, water, and electricity.
The Navajo Nation has instead been used for its resources to produce low cost power for benefit of developing the economies of the states of Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Our land has seen the development of the coal-fired power plants and transmission lines to serve those communities, without providing electricity or utility services to the Navajo Nation.
The need for immediate infrastructure investment is exacerbated by the proposed closure of Navajo Generating Station (NGS) by its owners, including the federal government. NGS is tied to 3,100 direct and indirect jobs as well as $180 million in annual wages. Furthermore, a study by Arizona State University found that the NGS provides an economic benefit to the region of over $230 million. This proposed closure would represent a great loss to the Navajo economy; we must explore options to mitigate the loss by allowing our people to engage in new opportunities for economic growth in innovative ways.
Faced with existing economic challenges, highlighted by an untenably high unemployment rate of 42 percent, the Navajo people are looking for jobs. By investing in infrastructure projects on the Navajo Nation, the United States government can mitigate the negative economic impact of its decision to support the closure of NGS, which — without a new buyer for coal and the infrastructure to transport it to market — will also result in the closure of the Kayenta coal mine. New projects not only mean jobs for our people, but will undoubtedly lead to greater opportunities in the future.
To start, we need to put the focus on basic resources. This begins with improving our access to drinking water. Numerous homes rely on transporting water through the use of cisterns from central, in some instances 50 miles from the home. The Navajo people are forced to convey drinking water from one region to another, as many of our groundwater sources are not potable. While much attention was paid to the Flint Water Crisis, the problems facing the Navajo people have gone largely unnoticed, as 35 percent of Navajo homes do not have access to potable drinking water.
We strongly recommend that the Trump administration dedicate infrastructure investment in providing all Navajo people access to electricity. We’re in dire need of funding for electrical distribution and the funds to support the management of such infrastructure, which would be a job creator and allow our people to enjoy comforts considered essential across America. The Navajo Nation has the largest tribally owned utility, which continues to be an economic development driver and employer for the Navajo Nation.
An additional large-scale infrastructure project that needs funding is the extension of the rail line that services the Kayenta coal mine within the Navajo Nation to a rail spur connected to the rest of the country. Currently, because the rail line runs solely between the Kayenta coal mine and NGS, the operators of the Kayenta coal mine are unable to transport the coal to another market. The Navajo Nation should not be limited to access other markets for the sale of this commodity. President Trump has spoken at length of the need to bring back America’s coal industry, he should not exclude the Navajo Nation from being an essential beneficiary of such a discussion. We urge President Trump to consider the proposal to extend the Kayenta coal mine rail line to access other markets a necessary component in his administration’s $15 billion for “Transformative Projects.”
It was encouraging to see the administration recently announce the outline of an infrastructure plan. However, if this plan is truly to benefit the entire country as a whole, Indian Country — and the Navajo Nation in particular — must be included. Specifically, the $100 billion identified for states and local governments must include tribal governments. Similarly, the tribal governments that are located in rural areas such as the Navajo Nation should be included as eligible parties for the $25 billion set-aside for rural infrastructure. We believe such parity would not result in duplication of services — indeed, we have yet to see an official state infrastructure proposal for this plan that explicitly includes a tribal project. The president’s 2018 budget requests $162 million for rural economic infrastructure grants of which $80 million is requested to be set aside for the Appalachian region. This is a new budget item and the Navajo Nation should be afforded something similar, if not increased grant allocation, as it has been even more severely devastated by the loss of coal jobs and economic depravity from the federal government as have been rural regions like Appalachia.
Despite the economic troubles faced by the Navajo Nation, I’m encouraged by President Trump’s commitment to infrastructure, but urge him to add investments in Navajo infrastructure. By taking an approach that couples a focus on basic resources with projects that will create greater opportunities for market access, we can work together to rebuild the Navajo economy and improve the lives of our people.
Russell Begaye is the President of the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized Native American reservation.