Darlene Arviso’s mornings begin early, usually before the sun rises over the high desert plateau of the Navajo Nation in the northwest corner of New Mexico. Parking a bright yellow, 3,500-gallon tank underneath St. Bonaventure Indian Mission’s steel water tower in Thoreau (which the locals pronounce “threw”), she fills it to the brim and sets off on 75-mile drives over mostly unpaved roads to the isolated families without running water.
A hardworking 50-year-old grandmother, Arviso visits more than 250 families on the reservation, leaving each with just enough water to last a month: about 7 gallons per day to be used for drinking, cooking and cleaning. It’s far less than the 80 to 100 gallons that the typical American consumes daily, but it’s the vital help that reservation households depend on to survive. Without her, many would rely on snowmelt and rainwater collected in livestock troughs, purchase expensive bottled water from the store or risk drinking muddy, uranium-contaminated groundwater.
“Sometimes they have to go up to Gallup, N.M., but they have to take that water about 60 miles. St. Bonaventure Mission, that’s the only place nearby for people to get their water,” explains Arviso, who’s been making deliveries for the church for seven years. “They depend on me for the water.”
People often think that access to clean drinking water is a problem only in developing countries, but nearly 40 percent of the 173,000 Navajo tribe members don’t have a tap or a toilet in their home, says George McGraw, founder and executive director of DIGDEEP, the only global water organization with projects in the U.S. that has partnered with St. Bonaventure Mission to bring water to the Navajo Nation.
“Generally, people are aware that almost a billion people don’t have access to clean drinking water worldwide, but what most people don’t know is that 1.7 million people live without it right here in the United States,” he says.
McGraw’s nonprofit is working toward long-term solutions by drilling wells in the rural areas where Navajo families have set down roots for generations. DIGDEEP found clean water 1,800 feet below ground in Smith Lake, a dozen miles north of Thoreau. It’s planning to wrap up construction on the $300,000 dig within the next nine months, meaning Arviso can refill her truck without trekking back to the Catholic mission’s tank. Since impassable, snow-covered roads often prevent Arviso from making deliveries in the winter, a deep well and network of pipes should provide a reliable supply of water throughout the year. It’d also provide a more reasonable amount of water — closer to 40 or 50 gallons — per day.
In the meantime, she continues to make her daily water runs. “I’m the only water truck driver,” she beams. For years, she worked construction jobs in Albuquerque about an hour and a half away, but after she was laid off, she found employment with St. Bonaventure closer to home.
“Navajos like our own people to be helping each other. If other volunteers come over, they’ll be embarrassed. They’re shy and they just don’t want to talk to strangers,” she explains. But if she’s there, families are usually more receptive. It’s part of what’s unique about DIGDEEP: Rather than working like a traditional water charity that imposes aid from the outside, the nonprofit tries to empower local communities to come up with their own solutions.
When people see Arviso’s huge truck barreling down the road, they wave. Kids run outside to greet her, familiar with the “water lady.” As soon as she pulls up, family members set up their barrels, jugs and buckets, eager to refill their supply. At times, she gets calls asking for other essentials: food, blankets, lamp oil, wood or maybe just emotional support. “I can’t just give water and leave,” she said. “I have to ask them if they’re doing okay.” No matter the distance, Arviso will come.
“I love what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m helping my people.”