Navajo Mountain roads and infrastructure are focus of meeting of state, tribal, local officials

Navajo Mountain, or Naatsis’áán as it’s known in Navajo, is a 10,000-foot high peak located in the southwest corner of San Juan County. 

On the eastern side of the mountain lies the community of Navajo Mountain, which is one of the most isolated communities in the United States. Although the Naatsis’áán chapter of the Navajo Nation is located in Utah, it is only accessible from roads in Arizona.

The estimated 500 or so people who live in Navajo Mountain face incredible challenges of isolation. A drive from the Navajo Mountain Chapter House to the San Juan County seat in Monticello covers more than 200 miles of road.

San Juan County Commissioner and Navajo Mountain resident Willie Grayeyes explained in an interview with Redrock 92.7 FM that the lack of access has historically meant challenges for Navajo Mountain residents.

“Due to extreme remoteness in the past, services were never delivered, public safety, health services and so forth. A lot of time, [United States Postal Service] would drop off packages 40 miles down the road at a convenience store,” said Grayeyes. “They’d call the recipient and say, ‘We left your package at a crossroad,’ and they’d leave. By the time the person gets there, the package would be gone.”

The only road leading in and out of Navajo Mountain previously was a dirt road that was not fully paved until 2016.

The presence of a Utah Navajo Health Systems (UNHS) clinic, NaaTsis’Aan Community School, and Navajo Mountain High School provides some critical health and education services, but other basic services are still lacking, including many homes without running water.

Addressing the challenges of transportation and water were two of the main discussion points at an April 29 meeting in Navajo Mountain.

The meeting was organized by Commissioner Grayeyes, along with the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition. The Coalition is made up of seven rural Utah counties that work to identify infrastructure projects that benefit the region. Commissioner Grayeyes serves as the San Juan County member of the coalition board along with representation from Emery, Carbon, Uintah, Sevier, Duchesne, and Daggett counties.

Also in attendance at the meeting was Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Utah Lt. Governor Diedre Henderson, Navajo Division of Transportation head Gary Silversmith, Utah State Senator David Hinkins, Utah Representative Phil Lyman, and Navajo Nation Council Delegate Herman Daniels, Jr.

Local leaders were also in attendance, including former Naatsis’áán Chapter president Hank Stevens, Oljato Chapter President Willis Begaye, and San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams, along with several other state officials and Navajo Nation employees.

At the meeting, a presentation from Jones and DeMille Engineering and the Seven County Infrastructure Coalition outlined two projects.

One project is related to the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act. The Act settles all current and future claims by the Navajo Nation for water rights within Utah.

The Act also recognizes the Navajo Nation rights to 81,500 acre-feet of water from the Colorado River basin in Utah. It also allows $220 million for water infrastructure projects in the Utah portion of the Navajo Nation.

Currently, more than 40 percent of Navajo Nation homes in Utah lack running water. 

The coalition emphasized the importance of identifying and preparing for water infrastructure projects ahead of appropriations from the federal government, which could take years.

The other project outlined at the meeting is the Navajo Mountain Regional Roadway Transportation project, which would focus on connecting Navajo Mountain to other parts of San Juan County.

The outlined project could exist in three phases. Phase one would grade the alignment, create drainage and possible bridge structures to create a roadway connecting Navajo Mountain to Oljato and Monument Valley. 

Phase two could connect Navajo Mountain and Oljato to Highway 276, which leads to Halls Crossing at Lake Powell. Part of this proposal would include a bridge over the San Juan River.

Phase three would pave these two proposed roadways.

A project cost estimate from February 2020 places phase one at about $50 million, phase two at $30 million, and phase three at an estimated $35 million, for a total of $115 million.

Although two new roadways were discussed at the meeting, representatives from Jones and DeMille say the routes are currently being revisited and evaluated to match the need and control the estimated cost of the project.

The company adds that the alignment and budgets shown will likely change with that evaluation.

Stakeholders at the meeting were able to see the logistical challenges of creating the roadway as they went on a 20-mile drive along dirt roads to see the rough terrain where steep canyons and rocky mesas separate Navajo Mountain and Oljato.

Despite funding and engineering challenges, most at the meeting participants said the timing is right for the project. 

Potential funding sources outlined for the project included the Navajo Nation and the State of Utah. Securing high ranking officials from both entities at the meeting could bode well for the project. 

Another key funding source for the project could be the federal government. Commissioner Grayeyes pointed out that the project could fall under consideration of the Biden Administration proposal for a $2 trillion Infrastructure Plan, which includes billions for roadways.

Ahead of the actual roadway construction, which will likely take years, the next phase of the project is to acquire funds for a large-scale feasibility study, including evaluation of risks, economic opportunities, and environmental impacts.

Commissioner Grayeyes says other key pre-construction items are also in the works.

“Right now we’re looking at acquiring the right-of-way for the road. Putting the project in such a manner to be recognized as a shovel-ready project,” said Grayeyes. “Meaning all of the right-of-ways are approved, and Federal and Navajo Nation requirements are met.”

While creating the roadway would provide for better travel times, Commissioner Grayeyes also outlines the opportunity of the roadway to address water infrastructure and economic challenges in the area.

“I’m trying to entertain the idea to use the same right-of-way for the road for an agricultural water system to connect from the San Juan River, near the confluence of Nakai Canyon and San Juan River, to bring it to the top of Piute Mesa.”

Grayeyes says on top of Piute Mesa, the water from the river could help recharge the underground aquifer, be placed in a holding tank for an irrigation system, and serve livestock and wildlife.

Additionally, Grayeyes says the roadways could revitalize other parts of the economy in Navajo Mountain, including tourism.

“We have at Navajo Mountain what we call Navajo Canyonland just north of the mountain,” said Grayeyes. “That’s quite a view to experience and all the deep canyons that sometimes we call it ‘our Grand Canyon.’

“So I express appreciation to each and all the attendants and hopefully somebody will come up with the $115 million.”

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