Electricity is on its way to Westwater and drinking water may follow thanks to projects

Electricity is on its way to Westwater and drinking water may follow. A host of state, tribal, religious, and local officials visited the Westwater community on September 22 to investigate a proposed project to bring water to the 29 homes immediately west of Blanding.

The group, which included Utah Lt. Governor Deidre Henderson, Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer, a dozen Utah State legislators, and others, met at Edge of the Cedars State Park and then toured the Westwater area where they met with three local residents.

The residents of Westwater were both skeptical and hopeful.

Ranae Gene, a widow and mother of three young children, is hopeful the projects will bring modern comforts to the community.

Gene outlined the progress she has seen in the neighborhood during her lifetime, including home construction in 2010.

Gene said, “Now we are trying to receive more to make it easy on the next generation… so we won’t need lamp oil. But we are still doing the hard thing and gathering firewood!”

Gladys and Albert Cly Jr., who identify themselves as the oldest residents of Westwater, were more skeptical.

Gladys stated that she has heard “one too many promises” and wants to have Christmas lights this year. “People come and go and say they are willing to help and go so far,” she added. “Then they back out on us.”

One legislator, State Senator Derrin Owens, said the group was not making promises. Owens said, “We offer hope and maybe a plan to move forward.”

Owens added, “Any promises that were made by the City of Blanding to get water here, that’s too big for Blanding.”

Jurisdiction and ownership questions, along with a large price tag for the projects, are two of the major challenges that have kept some of the most basic services from the residents of Westwater.

The area, with a 120-acre property purchased by the Navajo Nation in 1986, has never been formally subdivided.

The community continues to slowly grow, despite the fact that the daily routine to live in Westwater requires hauling water, burning firewood, maintaining septic systems, and washing clothes at the laundromat.

Over the years, a few diesel generators, solar panels, and wind turbines have dotted the landscape, but there has been no structured development… until now.

The culinary water project, with an estimated $10 million price tag, would be significantly more expensive than the electrical project, which will cost an estimated $2 million.

The water project would require the purchase of water rights, in addition to the physical infrastructure.

The City of Blanding made a first step in a recent city council meeting when they approved the sale of culinary water to another utility, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA).

The officials discussed the challenges related to the project and the funding partnerships that will be needed to pull it off.

Initial funding may come from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). The State of Utah set aside $25 million in ARPA funds to be used for drinking water projects.

While balking at funding the full project from ARPA funds, state officials are considering the designation of $3 million for the Westwater Project.

They suggest that the subsequent months will be used to fine tune the cost estimates and identify the potential partners.

“They have asked for $10 million, but we don’t know if it will cost $10 million,” said Senator Jerry Stevenson, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. “As we move into the session in January…we will have all of our engineering estimates and know who are partners are going to be.

“We will have a system for putting this together and doing it in an efficient way and a manner in which we normally do projects in the State of Utah.”

State Representative Phil Lyman said he was pleased to welcome the group to his home community and expressed the hope that the projects would bring both sides of Westwater Canyon together.

The ARPA funds may help address an issue that has challenged the Westwater community for many years.

While the culinary project is still in the funding and planning stage, the project is well underway to bring electricity to Westwater.

It is funded in part with $500,000 from the State of Utah, with a match from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and $200,000 from the Utah Navajo Trust Fund.

Installation of the electrical infrastructure is set to begin this fall, with the hope of having electricity to the homes by the Christmas season.

“That project is in place, and they are ready to move,” said Stevenson. “There shouldn’t be any question on that one.”

The City of Blanding, the NTUA and Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS) are partnering on the project, with NTUA installing the power lines and acting as a sub-utility.

In addition to Vice President Lizer and Lt Governor Henderson, additional officials who attended the September 22 event include State Treasurer Marlo Oaks, who also serves as chair of the Utah Navajo Trust Fund; Kim Shelley, the Director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality’ Senators David Hinkins, Derrin Owens, Mike McKell, Don Ipson, and Jerry Stevenson; and Representatives Phil Lyman, Scott Chew, Val Peterson, Stewart Barlow, and Tim Hawkes.

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