NewsMay 28, 2014

The Navajo Nation's Shifting Sands of Climate Change

By Bobby Magill

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The Front Lines of Climate Change: Global warming is, by definition, global, but the impacts of climate change touch everyone on a local level. How each community responds depends on its unique mix of people and geography. This story is part of a Climate Central series that looks at how communities are facing the challenges ahead.

FARMINGTON, N.M. — Cindy Dixon was unloading bales of hay into a metal shed on a blustery afternoon in mid-March, when the landscape around her Navajo Reservation homestead was as brown and bleak as the open-pit coal mine a few miles to the west and well within earshot.

Normally, Dixon’s sheep would subsist on the flora of the sandy desert floor, but this winter was so dry that there was no forage for them to eat.

Cindy Dixon raises sheep near a coal mine on the Navajo Nation in northwest New Mexico. The Southwest's drought has reduced available forage for her sheep, forcing her to buy hay and stressing her budget. She lives without electricity or running water.
Credit: Bobby Magill


“Since it’s all dry and bare and deserted — no vegetation — I have to constantly buy hay and grain to keep the sheep fed,” Dixon said, looking at the land around her trailer. “This is a bad, bad area for livestock.”

Dixon’s northwest New Mexico homestead has neither electricity, nor running water. She and her sheep breathe the coal dust blowing in the warm, dry air across the desiccated late-winter landscape, where the brush of the desert floor appeared as lifeless as the dirt underfoot.

Navajo people raising livestock in one of the poorest regions of the U.S. during the Southwest’s 20-year drought have to shell out more and more money to keep their traditions of living close to the land alive.

“I have to keep buying hay, grain and salt blocks,” Dixon said. “It’s gotten really expensive each year. It gets me in a financial bind. Sometimes I don’t have much left for our own grocery.”

Dixon’s plight is hardly isolated to her homestead. Drought touches every place in the Southwest. It touches the big cities of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Albuquerque. It threatens agriculture in California’s Central Valley. It stands to diminish the region’s biggest rivers — the Colorado and the Rio Grande.

Where Climate and Poverty Collide

But drought and climate change have been especially hard on the Navajo Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. with more than 170,000 people living on the reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. The Four Corners region, where those states and Colorado meet at the edge of Navajoland, is truly the front line of climate change.

The Navajo Nation spans over three states across an area nearly the size of Ireland. The landscape there is varied, but mostly desert and almost completely drought-stricken. Here, U.S. Highway 163 threads through Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah state line.
Credit: Bobby Magill


The region, like the rest of the Southwest, is expected to see more intense heat waves as the climate warms. Streams are drying up because of the drought, new sand dunes are forming on the reservation and old ones are getting larger. And that means residents here — especially those without the water and electricity taken for granted elsewhere — are more exposed to intense heat and are likely to be the first to suffer in a changing climate.

In Navajoland, water is sparse and distances are vast. The Navajo Reservation stretches roughly 300 miles from Tohajiilee, N.M., west of Albuquerque, to the west side in Tuba City, Ariz., north of Flagstaff. The Navajo Nation spans three states, covers more than 27,400 square miles and is larger than the land area of Belgium and the Netherlands combined. As with any region so large, the weather varies almost as much as the landscape does.

The lengthwise trip crosses through the redrock sandstone canyon country so iconic of the Southwest, and passes into ponderosa pine-covered high plateaus, desert scrubland clad with low piñon and juniper trees and the blustery grassy plains of the western part of the reservation not far from the famous Petrified Forest National Park.RELATEDThe Front Lines of Climate Change: Charleston’s Struggle
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Here, livelihoods and Navajo traditions are tied to the land – and that land is becoming less viable for grazing livestock because of heat, lack of rain and expanding sand dunes.

Those who live here seem as tough as the desert landscape they inhabit, living as much at the margins of nature as they have at the margins of American society.

The reservation was established in the 19th century by the U.S. government on the driest portion of the Navajo traditional homeland, which spanned deep into all the Four Corners states before the Navajos were assigned to the heart of their current territory straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border in 1868.

But the Navajo people are inseparable from the landscape in which they live, with four sacred mountains  — Mt. Taylor in New Mexico, the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, and Hesperus and Blanca peaks in Colorado — forming the foundation of the tribe's identity and belief system even though none of those peaks are within the reservation itself. 

Today, in the shadows of these distant mountains, many people live in Third World conditions. The Navajo Nation unemployment rate in 2011 was 47 percent and the poverty rate was 37 percent. The median household income was just $24,000.

Sadie Lister, a local volunteer coordinator for the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance in Indian Wells, Ariz., is learning how to raise cattle in dry country. As part of her volunteer work, Lister works with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service to hold conservation awareness workshops in nearby communities.
Credit: Bobby Magill


About 38 percent of Navajo residents lack electricity and running water — which threatens lives during heat waves that scientists say could intensify in the coming years. 

As the globe warms, water quality on the reservation will take a hit partly because there will be less of it, but also because rising temperatures, forest fires and dying trees will add pollutants and sediment to streams and groundwater, greatly affecting Navajos' drinking and irrigation water supplies in the future, according to a new University of Colorado report published in May about climate change and adaptation on the Navajo Nation. 

Navajo elders remember wetter times, when winter snows were knee-deep, water always ran in springs and arroyos, and the rangeland among the canyons, mesas and volcanic hills could support large herds of livestock, a mainstay of the Navajo economy.

Over the past 60 years, the Southwest has experienced swings between very wet and very dry, but the current drought has dominated the past 20, with brief wet periods in 2004, 2005 and 2010 doing little to alleviate that long-term trend. Even though scientists believe the Southwest has historically experienced similar droughts in the distant past not tied to climate change, rising global temperatures threaten to make this one worse. Arizona is warming faster than any other state in the contiguous U.S. with average temperatures increasing about 0.64 degrees each decade since 1970.

Changing the Fabric of Life

In Arizona, these drier times mean some farmers can grow hardly anything at all. 

Farmer Jonathan Yazzie said he used to grow corn, squash, zucchini, chiles and cantaloupe in northeast Arizona. But the drought has forced him to stop farming, at least for now.

“The water is just not there no more,” he said. “We’re down to 15 sheep. No cattle. Two horses. That’s our kids’ future.”

He said he has been writing to both the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments asking for access to irrigation water, and if it doesn’t come through, Yazzie said he and his family will probably have to move to where they can find water.

Nellie Nez grew up on the southern edge of the Navajo Nation north of Winslow, Ariz. Over the decades, she remembers raising large herds of livestock in an area nearly incapable of supporting such herds today because of prolonged drought.
Credit: Bobby Magill


2013 technical report for the National Climate Assessment called the Southwest one of the most “climate challenged” regions in North America and paints a complicated picture of climate change in the Four Corners region. The Southwest has been warmer in the past 65 years than at any time in the previous 600 years, and the warming is expected to continue. The soil is expected to get dryer and droughts will be more severe and frequent.

Felix Nez, a U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service district conservationist,  works in the Hopi Buttes area northeast of Winslow, Ariz. At 6,000 feet in elevation, the buttes traditionally see slightly more moisture each year than the surrounding area, a great help to the Navajo ranchers in the area.

“The drought — its severity — can place heavy burdens on the mind,” Nez said. “The amount of worry that Navajo people endure is often overlooked. There cannot be dollars and cents associated (with) those daily thoughts of worry.”

Sadie Lister, a volunteer coordinator for the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance in Indian Wells, about an hour east of Flagstaff, said Navajo children are taught about climate change in school, and many of them want to know how it will affect their ability to raise animals in the future.

“As parents, we need to instill the importance of sustainability,” she said. “We need to be stewards of our lands, take the initiative to take care of our land, our Mother Earth.”

Navajo activists Victoria Gutierrez and her mother, Sarah Jane White, made this billboard along U.S. Highway 64 east of Shiprock, N.M. They say they fear the drought has made the air quality around the local coal mine worse.
Credit: Bobby Magill


Though most families’ income comes from government assistance or income from jobs, many have to raise livestock as a way to supplement their income. Livestock also allow families to occupy land on the reservation, and the sheep they raise are important for ceremonies, according to Margaret Hiza Redsteer, lead author of the National Climate Assessment technical report's chapter on tribal vulnerability to climate change and a U.S. Geological Survey staff scientist who studies climate change on the Navajo Nation.

“It’s pretty devastating, really,” said Redsteer, who also co-authored a case study on the Navajo Nation for the United Nations Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction in 2010. 

That devastation comes in the form of lost livelihoods based on livestock raising and ranching as 99 percent of the streams of the Navajo Nation that flows all year during the early 20th century have dried up, no longer running all year. 

One of climate change’s markers is the spread of sand dunes. Redsteer’s 2011 study on the Navajo Nation’s sand dunes shows that in the southwestern corner of the reservation, dunes are moving about 115 feet per year.

“Although the water in the stream is gone for long periods, that water moved sand and silt along the stream bed when it was flowing,” she said. “When the water dries up, this loose sediment is still in the dry stream bed. When the wind kicks up, it blows out across the areas downwind of that stream and begins to form new sand dunes.”

Cindy Dixon says living in such dry conditions next to a coal mine forces her to breathe coal dust on a daily basis, leading to health problems. Navajo activist Victoria Gutierrez has been working with other Navajos to force the cleanup of the mine site.
Credit: Bobby Magill.


When rain does come, often in more intense storms, even more sediment flows downstream, increasing the size of the dunes.

Sand dunes are normally stabilized by vegetation, but much of that vegetation has died amid the drought, allowing the dunes to spread, jeopardizing the rangeland and even homes. Some people in the southwest quadrant of the Navajo Nation may be forced to relocate because of encroaching sand dunes, according to Redsteer’s research.

Increased aridity on the reservation is a trend Redsteer has been following with the help of tribal elders, whose stories have helped her fill in gaps in available weather data, which show that average snowfall across the Navajo Nation dropped from to about 11 inches by 2010 from about 31 inches in 1930, according to the UN case study. 

“Every tribal elder mentioned the lack of snowfall,” Redsteer said. “They describe winters where the snow was ‘chest high on horses.’ The snowfall snows a significant decline over the 20th century, and is still declining in recent years.”

A Data Gap

The elders’ memories have not been backed up by precise weather data, because although 25 weather stations exist across the reservation, their records are incomplete.

“Many stopped operating in the early 1980s, so there are large areas of the reservation where we have no record of what has happened weather-wise,” Redsteer said. “This makes it difficult to understand the impacts of climate change unless there are people who have experienced the changes and remember them because they rely on favorable weather conditions to grow crops and raise livestock.”

But memories can only go so far to fill in data gaps, and efforts to obtain better weather monitoring stations are constrained by tight budgets and lack of support from the federal government, said Jason John, branch manager for Navajo Nation Water Management in Window Rock, Ariz., the Navajo capital.

Nellie Nez's ranch, in the southwestern Navajo Reservation about 30 miles north of Winslow, Ariz., is so far from running water that it has to be trucked in. The ranch is in an arid region of the Navajo Nation, just east of Dilkon, which sees slightly more moisture than the areas around it.
Credit: Bobby Magill


There are no quick fixes for sand dune drifting, long-term water shortages or the inability of the land to support livestock, Redsteer said.

In an area where poverty is rampant and people’s identity is so tied to the traditions of living on the land, the future on the reservation is bleak.

And that has an immediate effect on all the Navajo people, who will have to adapt to a changing climate.

“I don’t know a single young Navajo person today who’s thinking about having their own sheep herd,” Redsteer said. “Part of that is due to their own market economy. The feasibility of doing that is just impossible now.

“There is still a holdout group of elderly people who really don’t have a choice. Their language is Navajo. Their culture is Navajo. They really don’t have any other place to go.”

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