Building Tribal Capacity with Water Research Partnerships Workshop: A Reflection

This piece was written by: Alice Lei, Research Experience for High School Students, West Hub Intern, San Diego Supercomputer Center, UC San Diego

The New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) recently held a workshop that not only aimed to raise awareness of the severe water crises affecting tribes, pueblos and nations within and bordering New Mexico but also to foster future collaborations, emphasizing the importance of tribal perspectives in water management and best practices in pursuing these partnerships. The gathering highlighted the considerable expertise within tribal communities and provided a platform for others to utilize successful past models in building new efforts. West Hub Principal Investigator Christine Kirkpatrick attended the event and gave a summary of her takeaways. 

“A major theme was building trust and good communication with tribes, pueblos and nations — there were representatives from universities, non-profit organizations and governmental agencies at the workshop,” recounted Kirkpatrick, who is the division director for Research Data Services at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. “When it comes to solving water disparity issues with big data, the problems are technical but also sociotechnical and this workshop uncovered gaps, surfaced examples to follow and educated the group on the importance of communication and trust when working with tribes, nations and pueblos on their water challenges.”

Kirkpatrick said that she and other West Hub partners are now examining ways that big data can be used to mitigate some of these water issues. 

A well-known group discussed during the workshop was the Navajo Nation, a nation disproportionately impacted by the pandemic through heightened infection rates caused by lack of essential services and access to clean water. In fact, according to the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources, clean and reliable drinking water is inaccessible to approximately thirty percent of the population. Further, Light Up Navajo, a project by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the American Public Power Association, stated that 15,000 of the 55,000 homes located on the 27,000 square mile territory do not have electricity. In general, COVID-19 has been detrimental — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “a recent analysis found that the cumulative incidence of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases among [Indigenous/Alaska Native] persons was 3.5 times that among White persons.

The Navajo Nation’s water crisis is one example that depicts the seriousness of what many tribes, pueblos and nations are facing. 

To encourage collaborative efforts among tribal and non-tribal water leaders and water researchers, the workshop focused on four key objectives to: (1) “Encourage new and continuing collaborative research and foster discussion on best practices,” (2) “Show how collaborative projects benefit research institutions and supports Native students doing research within their own tribal communities,” (3) “Promote community-engaged and community-lead water research” and (4) “Promote water research that builds tribal capacity.”

Workshop speakers represented many entities, ranging from the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources to independent hydrology consultants and engineers. At the end of the morning session, time was allocated for the over 150 participants to explore urgent Indigenous water issues, potential areas of future research and appropriate research methodologies. Breakout room topics included: universal access to clean water, research to informal tribal water rights, environmental justice, climate change impacts on water, and research to support the adoption and implementation of water quality standards, and data sharing and collaboration models that respect sovereignty and build trust, which was led by Kirkpatrick. 

More details have been published on the NM WRRI website at nmwrri.nmsu.edu/TribalWorkshop/

Presentations and projects shared at the workshop include the following:

nmwrri.nmsu.edu/TribalWorkshop/NikkiTulley_WRRI2021.pdf

nmwrri.nmsu.edu/TribalWorkshop/Claudia_and_Charlene_IRD_Presentation.pdf www.youtube.com/watch?v=3OBvKbhFXDs