A Navajo Community’s Quest for Water to Grow Food


Tawnya Laveta

Dorothy Bitsilly, president of Tohatchi Red Willow Farm, motioned us to follow her as she slid into her pickup and headed down the dirt road to Chuska Lake, the reservoir for the cooperative farm. A couple months before, the small Navajo grandmother stood in front of 250 participants at the Southwest Marketing Network conference in Durango, asking for help to establish a water well for the 938-acre farm. The farm, located in Tohatchi, 25 miles north of Gallup, is divided into plots that are allocated to Navajo families in the area.


Several years of drought and the consequences of overgrazing in the upper watershed had reduced the reservoir to an inch-deep swamp—not enough to supply the Red Willow Farm, three miles away, with irrigation water. “If we’re lucky, we get one call for water in April or May. That’s it,” explained Dorothy, who has been on a quest to find money for the well water project for the past eight years. I asked her how long the call for water lasted, a couple weeks? She held up one finger, “No, just one day.”


As we followed Dorothy out to the 1934 dam, a convoy of pickups and cars followed, carrying farm members who were proud to show off the “lake” and the farm on that hot June afternoon in 2009. Our organization, Farm to Table, had arranged to bring two funders, representatives from national charitable foundations, out to see the farm as part of a three-day tour of food and farming projects in northern New Mexico. The Red Willow Farm Board and members welcomed us at the chapter house when we arrived, straight from the Albuquerque airport. They were eager to tell their story to us newcomers.


Tohatchi means “water running from the mountain” in Navajo, water that used to be plentiful from the nearby Chuska Mountains. As we approached the lake, we saw the extent of the drought and climate change. Tamarisk was squeezing out the cattails and red willow, fighting for the last puddle. “I can’t believe anything grows out here,” exclaimed one of the funders from Michigan as we drove through landscape dotted with sagebrush and tumbleweeds. Our convoy kicked up a plume of dust that could be seen for miles as we arrived at the reservoir. Dorothy pointed at the dam and waved for us to follow. She began ascending the maintenance road onto the dam, a track barely wide enough for a small vehicle. Our van-load of visitors grabbed onto their seats and seatbelts as I kept up with Dorothy, bouncing over rocks and dips.


We stopped on the dam and carefully got out for a view, mindful of the steep drop-off. Dorothy said, “People used to fish out here, bring their whole family and stay all day long. Not any more.” She pointed to the opposite side of the dam, across the vast sage land beyond, and explained how the gate and pipeline worked to send water to the farm, some three or four miles away… if only there was water.


Dorothy motioned for everyone to turn around at the end of the dam and follow her down to the farm, another 10 miles on dirt roads. Our Michigan guests white-knuckled it as I gunned the van through sand-blown sections and crept along arroyo banks more fit for a jeep. Our “shortcut” was an adventure, but highlighted the layers of challenges that face communities in rural areas, especially on remote reservations where a paved road is a luxury.


Dorothy’s son, Elvis Bitsilly, said the estimate for bringing in phase-three electricity, enough power to run a pump for the future well and irrigation system, was $230,000. That’s how much it would cost to trench and lay line for the two miles needed to hook up the farm. Drawing power is a cost above and beyond the initial $580,000 price tag for drilling the well. And no one knows how much the farm’s monthly electricity bill will be once all the infrastructure is installed—some day.


It’s one more thing that Elvis and the Farm Board can research while they continue to pursue funding sources from Navajo Nation’s Capital Improvement Office, New Mexico’s Tribal Infrastructure Fund, McKinley County, and NM State Legislature’s capital outlay. Elvis joked that Red Willow might get their well and water on the farm before Gallup completes the pipeline for their domestic water supply from the San Juan River near Shiprock. Even with millions of dollars and several years of negotiations, the pipeline construction work had just begun and is expected to take years to complete. “Out here, everything seems to take longer,” Elvis paused, “…a lot longer.”


Elvis knows firsthand how this work is more than a full-time job for several people, who mostly volunteer, to deal with all the red tape. This past year, as part of his work with Farm to Table, he has been coordinating funding applications and the required environmental and archeological studies, and keeping the farm board’s paperwork current with the Navajo Nation. Elvis’ mother, Dorothy, and her fellow Farm Board members make weekly trips to Window Rock to advocate for the well project. They rally other Tohatchi residents to get involved while continuing to approve farm plot applications from residents who are interested in “getting back to farming.”


We could see why this tenacious group of people continued the quest for almost a decade once we arrived at the entrance of the farm. Several plots had sprouted hardy corn stalks as high as your ankle in the midst of windblown sand. Twenty families are actively farming their 2-to-5-acre plots, sometimes driving 45 minutes from their house to care for their crops. A corn plant in the desert with only 4-6 inches of rainfall is a miracle to behold. Our convoy of trucks and cars pulled over to admire family plot after plot and share stories about that man or woman or organization who faithfully tended their land, what kind of corn or squash they planted this year, whose tractor they borrowed, when they came back to the reservation from their life in some big city, and whether or not they also raised Navajo Churro sheep. Our van of visitors took some pictures, but mostly they listened to the people and the land until almost sundown, standing in the wind, shading their eyes, ignoring the deadline to return to Albuquerque.


It’s a life-changer going out to a place like Red Willow Farm, seeing how people come together to do the impossible,” said our guest who came from verdant farmland in the Midwest. Although the funders did not have grants for this type of infrastructure project, their tour of NM influenced how they thought about food-system work. Water, essential and precious, is the basic need for many communities in the Southwest who are continuing, or beginning, to take responsibility for growing their own food.


Many of us living in cities or far away from this region have a hard time imaging how you grow food without the twist of a valve to access water. We also have little idea about how our states, tribes and federal government prioritize the uses of water, choosing between allocating for commercial purposes and allocating to meet food sovereignty goals. How does our resource consumption in cities affect our rural neighbors? How do decisions in Santa Fe, the capital city, determine the destiny of small villages like Tohatchi and their ability to grow food for their families or future enterprises? We continue to learn from people like Dorothy how complex the projects become and how our historical baggage hinders a community’s ability to take care of themselves and the land and water as their relations… as all of our relations.


For more information about supporting the Red Willow Farm and water well project, their efforts at the 2012 NM state Legislature, and application for capital outlay funds from the Navajo Nation, contact Elvis Bitsilly at egbit1@yahoo.com or call 505.203.7290. He’d be happy to introduce you to “grandmother” Dorothy Bitsilly to recruit you into this “generational project.”




Tawnya Laveta is programs director at Farm to Table. tawnya@farmtotablenm.org




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