There’s nothing ordinary about St. Michael’s Association for Special Education. It’s the only special-needs school serving school-aged students on the Navajo Reservation, which covers so much land that if it were a state, it would be the 10th largest in America. The school, a private nonprofit founded by a Catholic nun who also served as a nurse on the reservation, is located in the Navajo Nation’s capital, Window Rock, Arizona. Some of its students travel as far as 200 miles to attend. Some even board overnight during the week.
In addition to the 24 school-aged students who call SMASE home, there about 30 adults with special needs who also attend. The students at SMASE face severe disabilities. Some have non-verbal autism. Others struggles with orthopedic impairments. None are able to advocate for themselves, which is what makes the school’s water crisis so heartbreaking.
Similar to many other places within the Navajo Nation, SMASE doesn’t have continuous access to safe, clear running water. According to materials provided to The Blaze, “SMASE’s water is approaching unsafe levels of lead and arsenic—which may spike from time to time. Its water also has high levels of iron, calcium, sulfate and decaying organic material which cause the distinct odor and color.”
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority says the water at the school meets the Environmental Protection Agency’s legal requirements for water—despite the water’s yellow, brown and sometimes even black color and foul smell and taste, according to a report by Fronteras. But SMASE avoids using the water whenever possible. The students instead frequently haul giant jugs of water to SMASE’s campus, costing the cash-strapped school $2,944 per year, about $1.60 per gallon of water purchased. The average home in the Southwest pays less than 15 cents per gallon.
“Our tap water is black and stinky and it’s not safe for us to drink,” 14-year-old student Brianna Tsosie said of the school’s tap water.
A Los Angeles-area nonprofit is looking to change all that. The Dig Deep Right to Water Project has launched a campaign to build three water-treatment units so that all of SMASE’s buildings have access to clean water. Dig Deep also plans to replace the corroded sinks and water heaters at the school. The organization estimates it will need to raise $100,000 for the project. In early April, Dig Deep had raised about $65,000.
“These are people that can’t advocate for themselves,” said Dig Deep Executive Director George McGraw to Fronteras. “Some of them can’t even turn on a tap that’s in front of them. These are people that rely on us, on their teachers, on their government officials on society at large to make sure their most basic needs are taken care of. What’s more basic than having access to clean running water?”