2° Out West Podcast

Hydrology In the Navajo Nation with Crystal Tulley-Cordova

Holistic Indigenous thinking sparked a curiosity and love for water that led Crystal Tulley-Cordova to a professional path in Hydrology. She’s currently the principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation. In this episode, we discuss all things water within the Navajo Nation.

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Crystal at Lake Powell in March 2023.

Crystal Tulley-Cordova PhD, MWR is a Principal Hydrologist in the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources – Water Management Branch.  She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. She received a doctoral degree in Geology and an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability from the University of Utah. She has received a Master of Water Resources in Hydroscience and a Bachelor of Science in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of New Mexico

Crystal’s innate curiosity, love for the outdoors, and fascination with rocks sparked her career in hydrology, geology, and sustainability. As a child, she spent many hours exploring around her Arizona home and served as a water hauler for her family. She’s harnessed that love, passion, and curiosity to fuel her current work.

As a principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation, Crystal is a project manager for regional water supply development projects, including the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project. She’s a committee member on the San Juan Recovery Implementation Program, which is recovering two fish species, the Colorado Pike Minnow and the Razorback Sucker. She’s also a trustee on the Colorado River Water Users Association.

In this episode, we discuss all things water within the Navajo Nation, as well as climate change impacts and the Indigenous climate solutions that stem from a holistic conservation mindset.

Crystal on the Colorado River in September 2022.

For her 4th-grade science project, Crystal created a water filtration system with sediments and soda bottles. The holistic, interconnected approach to thinking about the world around her stems from Indigenous knowledge passed down for generations.

I grew up in the Navajo Nation as an explorer, as a scientist, jumping from rock to rock, collecting rocks, hauling water, as well as herding sheep. And when your world is your environment, it really encourages you to think about your world and your environment and the processes that are going on. Why do we have rain? Why do we have snow? Why do we have fossilized shells in Northeastern Arizona?
Another epic shot of Crystal on the Colorado River.

Listen to our newest episode to learn about hydrology, the Navajo Nation and Indigenous climate solutions. Please consider leaving a review after listening so more folks can find our podcast. 

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what i like about the west

We would love for you to contribute to the new “What I Like About the West” Segment. 

Create a 40-second voice memo telling us what you like about the West and email it to us at Jessi.Janusee@westernresources.org. We would love to feature you on our next podcast episode! Also, please take a minute to watch this 1950’s video of Tex Williams performing the song, “That’s What I Like About the West.” His song was the inspiration for this segment. 

That's What I Like About The West

Episode Guest

Crystal Tulley-Cordova PhD, MWR is a Principal Hydrologist in the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources – Water Management Branch.  She is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. She received a doctoral degree in Geology and an Interdisciplinary Graduate Certificate in Sustainability from the University of Utah. She has received a Master of Water Resources in Hydroscience and a Bachelor of Science in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of New Mexico

Full Transcript 



[00:00:00] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Raging rivers, brooks streams, little creeks, lakes, wells, and municipal water, underground aquifers. Water in the West is so essential. In many places it is a scant resource, one that needs to be protected and one that is crucial for these environments. Water conservation in the West is a huge issue, and just working with water in the West is so important, especially for our underserved populations and Tribal Nations who often face difficulties surrounding water rights and clean water and equity in the water world. So today on the podcast, we have Crystal Tulley-Cordova, who is the hydrologist of the Navajo Nation.

[00:01:23] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : But then in thinking about sustainability too, like I come from a place where we’ve been here for millennia and sustainability is a part of the knowledge that we grow up with, indigenous knowledge to say that you’re not only thinking about yourself and your life, but you’re planning for the future, not only for the future of human beings, but also planning for those who don’t have a voice.

[00:01:50] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Welcome to Two Degrees Out West, a podcast where we celebrate all things about the Western United States, and we also talk about conservation issues, climate solutions, and the ways that we can make sure that this place is kept wild and thriving. I’m your host, Jessi Janusee, and I’m the multimedia storyteller here at Western Resource Advocates.

[00:02:14] Now let’s get started.

Today on the podcast we have Crystal Tulley-Cordova, PhD, MWR. She’s a principal hydrologist in the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources Water Management Branch. She’s an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and she received a doctoral degree in geology and an interdisciplinary graduate certificate in sustainability from the University of Utah.

[00:02:43] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, happy to be here. Yeah, definitely going through the academic journey that I did is challenging. I mean, even anyone to say like passing a thesis committee, meaning that your margins are right, your spacing is right. It can be a challenge in itself, but happy I jumped all of those hurdles with a bachelor’s and masters and then a PhD, and happy to be working with the Navajo Nation.

[00:03:09] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, that’s so rad. Can you tell us a little bit about your pathway to become a hydrologist?

[00:03:14] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist: I think the best way to describe it right is by describing myself the way we do introductions in our communities, our tribal communities, and so (Get this intro from Crystal)

Tódích’íi’nii nishłı̨́. Ta’neeszahnii báshíshchíín. Hashk’ąąn Hadzohí dashicheii. Tó’aheedlíinii dashinalí.

[00:03:31] And what I basically described is that I’m of the Bitter Water Clan, born for the Tangle People Clan. My maternal grandfather’s clan is the Yucca Fruit Strung Out in A Line. And my paternal grandfather’s clan is the Water That Flows Together. So, within our identity as Diné people is really interwoven with the natural world with water.

[00:03:54] Specifically for my identity. This is a clan system that I just described, and the clans are passed matrilineally through family and that’s really how you know I’ve been interested in water. I grew up in the Navajo Nation as an explorer, as a scientist, jumping from rock to rock, collecting rocks, hauling water, as well as herding sheep.

[00:04:19] And when your world is your environment, it really encourages you to think about your world and your environment and the processes that are going on. Why do we have rain? Why do we have snow? Why do we have fossilized shells in Northeastern Arizona? And you know, that really kind of clued me in because besides George Strait’s song, “Oceanfront property in Arizona”, like we’re miles from the coastline of where the land meets the earth. The Pacific Ocean in California would be the closest ocean to find seashells. And so it’s just one of those things, right? Like really having this bright light come on. I mean, like, it’s like kids, right, like asking you why, why is there a rainbow? Why do those colors pop out when they do?

[00:05:16] And I just was a very curious child and especially those rocks that I collected. I mean, I noticed that they were differences in between the rocks. Some of them were really smooshed together, kind of melted together, I guess would be a simple way to put it when I was thinking about it as, you know, a child, but then some of them, you know, were harder rocks and could be used for heat.

[00:05:39] You heated it up, igneous rocks. I only later found out, you know, that the majority of our beautiful area is really a lot of sandstone, the bright rocks of the mittens in Monument Valley, the canyon areas in Canyon de Chelly, and it was just a beautiful place to be able to grow up. But what I really, you know, kind of became interested in is one, there’s rocks, there’s a lot of weathering. What erodes the rocks? Wind and water. But just having an understanding right of the way water has this strength. Although when you look at it, sometimes it doesn’t look like it has that strength. But when you think about areas like Grand Canyon, I mean it carved that canyon and it’s carved Canyon de Chelly and it’s carving washes across the Navajo nation and it’s just something really interesting to me. And you know, also thinking about our water, where our water comes from. Early on I was a water hauler, like our family hauled water to provide for all of our water uses. I mean in-home use, for livestock, for domesticated animals like dogs and cats, and one of the things that I really thought too, right, is like I knew water doesn’t come from the tap, which I think sometimes young, small American people might think that who grew up always with running water, but I knew that water came from the earth and it is just one of those things like, is there a tank under the earth?

[00:07:17] Like what’s holding this water? And that’s really how I got started in hydrology.

[00:07:33] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller:

I love that. I love that it’s just sparked from your innate curiosity as a little kid and your connectedness and here you are now doing this important work with water. It’s beautiful.

Okay. This kind of makes sense then, because I was going to say, how did the geology and the sustainability aspect come into your work as a principal hydrologist?

[00:07:43] So that makes sense when you’re talking about the rocks. Thinking about how water is shaping the earth and all of that. But if you just want to mention anything else about it and like how that plays into the work that you’re doing.

[00:07:55] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : So it wasn’t until college that I really had an understanding, like there’s igneous rock, there’s metamorphic rock, there’s sedimentary rocks, and they have different characteristic.

[00:08:06] And thinking about where our water comes from, it’s really from sedimentary rocks. That’s where it’s stored and thinking about, well, it’s not tanks under the earth, but actually it’s these aquifers that are holding that water and they’re held in these small pores until we bring it out from groundwater. And that aspect, you know, really, I guess continued my curiosity. And even when you think about water treatment, I mean, in fourth grade I did a water filtration project using two liter bottles that held Coke, but then I cut off the bottoms and then took off the lid and packed different sediment in there to clean the water. And so that was just like a start to water filtration.

[00:08:57] And so thinking about. But then in thinking about sustainability too, like I come from a place where we’ve been here for millennia and sustainability is a part of the knowledge that we grow up with indigenous knowledge to say that you’re not only thinking about yourself and your life, but you’re planning for the future, not only for the future human beings, but also planning for those who don’t have a voice.

[00:09:25] And so that can be the plants, the fish, the birds in the sky, the wildlife, and even domesticated animals. I mean, everything that is living. That sustainability type of thinking really stayed with me. Now as a water manager, I don’t think about 40 year time horizon. I’m thinking generations out and I want Navajo people in the future to be able to have a secure water future.

[00:09:56] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: I wish that we were all taught that piece of sustainability and interconnectedness when we’re little. I feel like that would help a lot.

[00:10:03] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : For sure. I mean, definitely just planning for the present is just like immediate, right? Like sometimes that’s what we’re doing. I mean, in the case, like thinking about the Colorado River, it’s like crisis at hand.

[00:10:14] Paper water and wet water are not matching, and so it just provides challenges when you think about planning, but having a more holistic approach, not only thinking about humans, but also thinking about other aspects is critical. And you know, although our ancestors didn’t write things down on paper, they had this management practice that was just a part of their way of living, and that was important for us.

[00:10:45] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: So what projects are you currently working on?

[00:10:48] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : I’m a principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation. And I do a lot of things. I am a project manager for regional water supply development projects. I write grants for water projects. I participate on technical committees for water rights, water rights that have been resolved, and water rights that have yet to be resolved.

[00:11:11] And in addition to that, I work on a lot of Colorado River issues. I mean, part as a committee member on the San Juan Recovery Implementation Program, which is recovering two fish species, the Colorado Pike Minnow and the Razorback Sucker. And then I also participate, you know, as a trustee in the Colorado River Water Users Association and represent the Nation in various Colorado River related meetings with states as with tribes, and with the federal government.

[00:11:44] And I participate as well in research projects that are ongoing on the nation. So our priority is to get water to people because of the large population of people that don’t have running water. You know, upwards of 40% of our population doesn’t have running water and the same amount doesn’t have electricity in their homes.

[00:12:05] And so our priority is that, but equally important to us is water research above the ground and below the ground related to water. And so partnerships with these academic institutions really provide the capacity and the resources to address those issues. And anything else that comes up, doing a media tour related to water, if anything comes up.

[00:12:28] Or like a concern, right? Like maybe there’s flooding that’s going on. Trying to do flood mitigation work too, because that’s really important. State of emergency, not only with flooding, but also with drought. Climate change impacts has definitely increased the magnitude of both flooding and drought in the Navajo nation.

[00:12:48] And so participating and planning efforts to prevent damage to property and loss of life is what we’re interested in. So through federal partnerships, we’re really doing watershed characterization studies, which include floodplain management evaluations, as well as doing groundwater monitoring as well with federal partners.

[00:13:11] So definitely if something comes up, anything water related, like I’m definitely on it.

[00:13:17] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, that’s a lot.

[00:13:18] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : It’s everything that wasn’t in the job description. Just kidding. The job description probably would’ve been a few pages and not just a small paragraph.

[00:13:27] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah. Could you tell us, because I just want to put this kind of in a framework, how large the Navajo Nation is and how many members there are?

[00:13:36] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, for sure. So the Navajo Nation is over 27,000 square miles, and if your listeners are more interested in acres, it’s more than 17 million acres and if that’s still hard to contemplate, like how large is that? It’s actually similar in size to the state of West Virginia or the country of Ireland, so it’s a big area.

[00:14:00] We have land in Arizona, in Utah and New Mexico, and we have some private property in Colorado as well.

[00:14:07] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Wow. That’s massive. Yeah. Y’all are the country of Ireland. That’s a good context. Like I think that’s really good for people to, to wrap their brains around.

[00:14:18] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, for sure. And then speaking to the population, so population in Navajo, we’re the largest land based and largest populated tribe.

[00:14:26] And our population, meaning all Navajo, who are registered is over 411,000 people. There’s census 2020 information out there, but I think the debate that’s still out there is that, does that really describe what our present population is? Because it was a pandemic. I mean, was reporting really all done?

[00:14:49] So, I mean, nearly 200,000 to about half our population is on reservation and the other half is off.

[00:14:59] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Cool. A lot of people and a lot of land and a lot of water, I’m sure. And water issues that you are managing right now.

[00:15:07] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, for sure. I mean when you think about water I think it’s important to think about fourth grade, like fourth or fifth grade when you learned about the water cycle.

[00:15:15] So when you think about water in the Nation, it’s not just groundwater, it’s not just flows in intermittent streams or flows in streams that flow year round. It’s really more encompassing than that because I think it’s also important to think about like recharge flow paths for streams as well as groundwater, but also like springs, lakes. lakes that are maybe manmade or maybe lakes that are natural. And then also thinking about evaporation, evapotranspiration, those sort of things. It’s critical when we think about that and that’s why I love, like growing up the way that I did in indigenous thinking and knowing everything’s connected, not just water in itself, in that water cycle, but also thinking about ourselves as humans, right? Like we rely on the environment around us, and it doesn’t matter if we’re vegan, vegetarian, or we like to enjoy steak every now and then, we need everything. I mean, even the mosquitoes, right? Sometimes people may think they’re pesky or flies, but they have their place in the world and they have a purpose.

[00:16:25] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah. Yeah. And the water is not a static thing or not just a resource for us. You know, I’m kind of seeing that a lot, like, especially when we’re starting to talk about the Colorado River and extreme drought and reservoirs. You know, it’s this vibe of like, oh, what are we going to do for us for water?

[00:16:44] Thinking about it as like how it’s all interconnected and it’s a bigger, more massive problem that impacts everything.

[00:16:50] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : So, and I think a good example of that if people ever question themselves, like water in general and just kind of have that selfish mindset. I would encourage those type of listeners to go out to a spring and when you go out to a spring and, and sit there, not just for like a short while, but an extended time period.

[00:17:12] What you see and notice are all the interactions, the big creatures, the very little creatures, and even the micro creatures that exist there. And just to know that, I mean, even those ecosystems at those type of areas, maybe very unique and support a life that you may not be familiar with. But when you really kind of just step away from your phone, step away from your emails, from social media and really are in nature to do evaluation, there’s some things that you can notice.

[00:17:46] I mean, you use your senses and as indigenous people, that’s what we had before, you know, all of this technology, and that’s how we evaluated our environment as well, the changes in our environment by using the senses that we have. And I think it’s important to just consider that when we think of trying to meet the challenge, but trying to also think holistically using innovative approaches.

[00:18:11] Because I think so many times with the unprecedented challenges that we’re presented with, we think. Well, I don’t know. Things are kind of locked in stone and, but we have an innovative generation. How do we know that? I mean, things keep evolving a lot. I mean, even just the phones, right? You think about what version of phones keeps coming out every single year.

[00:18:35] I think that’s a testament to how, you know, we can be the generations to meet the challenge.

[00:18:42] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah. Put that innovation towards this important environmental work. Yeah, it’s funny. So, I’m originally from the East Coast, but I live in Nevada and now that I live in a desert, my relationship with water is so different, even though it’s always been something I really enjoyed.

[00:18:57] Like going to the ocean always gave me a lot of joy or going to the creek in the woods by my grandparents’ house. But now, it’s such a special thing where it’s in the summertime when it’s so hot, I’m always like, okay, let’s go in the woods where I found this tiny stream one time. You know? And like my kids can go play in that water.

[00:19:14] Like water is like such a not very available and really special resource, you know? And so having those moments with water now is even more important to me. I feel like the connection is way deeper because of the scarcity for sure.

[00:19:29] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Definitely. So, growing up as a water hauler, right? Even though I have running water now, it’s one of those things, conservation mindset is just in your mind in thinking about how to do things.

[00:19:43] So I mean, I do rainwater capture, or even when the snow is melting, I capture that to put it where the trees are going to need moisture. I’m a gardener as well. I like to grow my own food. And so thinking ahead of time for those type of things as well. And just thinking about you know, what are the opportunities that we have and how can we meet our challenges with the opportunities that we have?

[00:20:11] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Hey, All. I’m taking a second to just remind you that if you like Two Degrees Out West, we could really use your help spreading the word about the podcast by getting your review on Spotify, on Apple Podcast, on Overcast, wherever you listen. If you take a minute just to review the podcast, just give us some stars and maybe you also share it, we would really greatly appreciate it. It just allows us to have more visibility and get in front of more people so they can learn about the environment and all of the different cool things happening in the West and the clean energy sector. Thank you so much. Now let’s get back to the show. Well, I was going to ask kind of more about what a hydrologist does.

[00:20:53] I mean, I think it’s kind of self-explanatory, like everything with water. But if you wanted to give a more scientific or exact description of it, that would be cool.

[00:21:07] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Being a hydrologist is all encompass. So, I mean, it can include the engineering, it can include the chemistry, it can include the biology, it can include geography, it can include economics.

[00:21:25] It can include, you know, all of these different aspects. I mean, it’s very interdisciplinary when you think about water, and that’s why at different universities, a water related field will be students in different departments and colleges because it’s so widespread. And I guess simply put what I described in the past to my son’s preschool class is I study water.

[00:21:51] And so I think putting that simply that’s what I do. I study water, but even describing it more than that, it’s really all aspects of interactions with energy, interactions with food, I mean, all of these things.

[00:22:04] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: It’s massive. It’s so cool though, like what a cool field because you do get to touch all these different things, you know, like the nature of water itself, right?

[00:22:13] Water is everywhere.

[00:22:14] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, for sure. Even when you think about the states of water, right? Like you could have a solid state, a gas state, a liquid state, I mean, so even water itself and it’s physical form can be very variable.

[00:22:28] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, I love that. Okay, so now I wanted to get into a little bit more nitty gritty stuff.

[00:22:36] I was seeing in some of the articles I was reading this idea of a water budget, and so I wanted to know what that means and how, yeah, how, what, what is it?

[00:22:48] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : A water budget is what goes in is what comes out. A good example of that is, a release from Flaming Gorge, the approximately 460,000 acre feet that was released from Flaming Gorge under the drought response operations plan for 2022, the amended version, so that amount of water was released.

[00:23:12] But you think about, does all of that water release actually make it down to Powell. And the answer is no, because it’s an open system. It’s flowing through Green River, then through Colorado River, then making it to Lake Powell, and there’s evaporation that’s occurring. So thinking about that, the amount that actually makes it down may actually be less than that because of evaporation decreases.

[00:23:38] But the initial amount was 460,000 million acre feet. That’s just like an example of a water budget, but it’s really just important to think of it as what comes in and then thinking about how it comes out and what that might be.

[00:23:54] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, and I wonder. Also, like is there some pooling, you know, is there tributaries and different places the water could go too, right.

[00:24:03] That it might, it’s not going to just go directly down these rivers. Exactly. You know and be the exact amount of water that started.

[00:24:14] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah. And so, I guess best thing to think about it too is just like an accounting for a system. And so the Colorado River is a big system. It’s a binational system that’s in the US and in Mexico, and it spans across Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Colorado. And just thinking about it too, right, there are these watershed systems that could actually be made smaller. There are sub watersheds that actually contribute to a larger watershed like the Colorado River.

[00:24:51] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: So many pieces. I want to talk about precipitation because I feel like a lot of people see that we’re having, in certain parts of the country, these kind of intense winters and a lot of snow and a lot of rain, and then they immediately think like, oh, now we’ll be out of drought and everything’s good.

[00:25:08] So I just wanted to get into that a little bit and talk about, does more precipitation always equal more groundwater and more available water?

[00:25:17] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Great question. I’m glad that you asked this question because on my LinkedIn this week that was totally my message. I took a picture two days ago because it was snowing here and then what I described is, hey folks, yes, we’ve had a wetter than normal winter, but we’re still in drought.

[00:25:37] And we still have, you know, abnormally dry to severe drought conditions in the Navajo Nation. And it’s one of those things, right, like we’ve been having unusually drier than normal conditions for the past 20 years. And when you think about the magnitude of those drier conditions is like, this time period is really more than the past 1,200 years.

[00:26:01] So when you think about it on that time scale, and especially here in the Navajo Nation during the summer, like the capital of the nation got 283% of normal precipitation. So, like that’s a lot. Then for winter, like what our snow course survey and the two snow tell sites that we have on the mountain show is that we have 150% of normal for winter precip.

[00:26:23] And when you think about that, everyone’s like, whoa, that’s better than normal conditions. It’s wetter than normal conditions. Like it’ll take us out of a drought. But it’s like, okay folks, let’s think about the number of years, decades that we’ve been in drought and we’ve had a couple of good seasons. And when you think about the conditions on the ground, the soil being so dry, like a parking lot to where, I mean it needs a long time to wet up, then it’s important to just think about that.

[00:26:52] It’s not going to only take us two good seasons to get out of those decades long of drought conditions that we’ve been in. And what we’re also encouraged to think about by climatologists studying these types of things, studying, forecasting for the future is actually we should start calling it a aridification. Meaning drying is the new normal.

[00:27:14] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: And also it increases the chance of flooding, right? And then that’s going to take all the good topsoil away. If there’s even any good topsoil left, right? Like, then it floods out because the ground is so dry it can’t hold the water, and then it’s like depleting. So that’s something I think about.

[00:27:33] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, so yesterday it was rainy, so it’s crazy, right? Like we’re getting all of these seasons within this week. Now we’re just waiting for summer conditions. Just kidding. It’s too cold for that to try to have a similar summer, but I was in the field yesterday on March 22nd, World Water Day. And what I did notice, right, is a wash that is usually bone dry.

[00:27:58] And when people see those, they think like, oh, there’s no water there. But what people forget is there’s water beneath the surface and they’re usually a shallow aquifer. But this what is usually most times dry wash was like a raging river. It was kind of crazy. I didn’t do any stream gauging, but I, you know, my estimates were that it was definitely over a thousand cubic feet per second.

[00:28:25] But I mean, that’s water flowing through Black Creek Wash, flowing down to the Little Colorado River and making it to the Colorado River. I mean, it was like literally, there’s a major highway that goes over it and then like that water was almost to the highway.

[00:28:41] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Wow.

[00:28:42] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : So it, it was just to describe like when we think about it, right, like the magnitude of drought, the magnitude of flooding is a result of climate change impacts that we’re experiencing and the frequency as well.

[00:28:57] They’re more frequent than they have been in the past and definitely in the Navajo Nation lately we’ve been dealing with that because of how the soil is like, it’s creating really muddy conditions. People are having trouble getting back to their homes. They’re having to stay elsewhere just because of how moist it’s been lately.

[00:29:22] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah. I feel that personally. I actually got my truck stuck in my acreage the other day. I was stuck for like two days. Yeah. My friend was like, call AAA. I’m like, I’m too embarrassed to call them to come pull me out of my own yard.

[00:29:35] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Well, I’m glad you got out.

[00:29:37] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: So, I wanted to talk a little bit more about tribal water rights and water in the Navajo Nation.

[00:29:42] Also, just how you were saying, 40% of Navajo people don’t have running water in their houses. So, if you wanted to touch on that a little bit more, that would be great.

[00:29:52] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : The Navajo Nation has a variety of water uses, including domestic, commercial, municipal, and industrial, as well as agricultural and livestock water uses in the Navajo Nation.

[00:30:05] We do have dependency on both groundwater and surface water for various reasons. With regards to resolved water rights settlements, you know, we have had the opportunity to develop water. One example is a completion of a project back in October, 2020 where the cutter lateral, that’s a part of the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, a project that was authorized under public law 111-11, which you know, built a project that diversifies the Navajo Nation’s water portfolio by providing surface water, a part of the public water system from the Cutter reservoir to eight Navajo communities on the eastern side of the Navajo Nation, which is in New Mexico.

[00:30:54] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: So that reservoir existed but wasn’t linked to the Navajo nation?

[00:30:59] And then through that legal proceeding you were able to get water rights so that some of that water could be.

[00:31:07] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah.

[00:31:08] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Cool. And there’s more things like that in the works, like with the right terminology, but rectifying water rights?

[00:31:18] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : So we are working to implement water rights more recent, the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, which kind of is in the baby process of implementation because we’re still in the hydrographic survey and adjudication process.

[00:31:35] But with regards to the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project, there’s a lateral that’s still being built that essentially goes, if people are familiar with Shiprock, New Mexico goes from around that area all the way southwards towards Gallup, New Mexico and the Navajo Gallup Water Supply project is a project that will benefit 43 Navajo communities and we have 110 Navajo communities in the Navajo Nation.

[00:32:06] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Wow. That’s a lot of communities that will get that water that’s rad. There’s so many parts to your job. You’re doing so many things. I’m just thinking about how each one of these things is just like a tiny piece of all the work that you’re doing on the daily.

[00:32:19] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah. It can be very stressful, especially with the unprecedented hydrology and changes in administration, not only at the tribal level, state level, but also at the federal level.

[00:32:32] And just thinking, I mean, even people moving on, right? Like people that you’re working on water related projects take a long time to implement. I mean, not only water rights, but also the development of water projects and there’s a water coordination to be able to do what we do with regards to addressing the water challenges in the Navajo Nation with the opportunities that we have with our partners.

[00:32:56] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Well, it’s good that you’re here and you’re thinking generations out, making it all happen. Okay, so then I wanted to also just talk about environmental justice and that aspect of all of this water work. And where that plays a role in, you know, management and accessibility of water for the Navajo Nation.

[00:33:18] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : An environmental issue that pops out to me that people may or may not be aware of is legacy mining in the Navajo Nation.

[00:33:27] The Navajo Nation has over 521 abandoned uranium mines. So, uranium was extracted from the Navajo Nation in support of the defense of this country and what’s also important to understand is they’re abandoned, right? So that means no one’s coming up to come clean what’s left there, either the mine itself or the tailings or the mill sites.

[00:33:55] And it’s important to also think about that as that’s happening and precipitation continues to happen and there’s this whole water cycle interaction between, you know, precipitation to recharge your groundwater to streams. Transport processes, like there are, there are areas that are impacted. Their water quality is impacted with elevated levels, not only in the soil, but also in the water with high uranium content.

[00:34:23] And there are even arsenic issues. So, I think, you know, that that’s an environmental justice issue to where there’s this challenge now to like hold entities that formally did this accountable. And it’s especially hard when these entities may no longer exist. Maybe they went bankrupt or something, or maybe it may be hard to prove that it was actually them that did these efforts.

[00:34:50] It’s just an interesting aspect to understand. I mean, when people think about, well, Navajo Nation has the opportunity to get water from groundwater, it’s like, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but there’s not just like a good water supply available under every Navajo community. There are water quality challenges related to legacy mining issues that have elevated levels of uranium and arsenic, but there’s also brackish water issues, meaning saltier than, salty like sea water. But then you also think about that there are production issues. The geology beneath the surface is not like a layered cake. It’s like a cake that has been fractured, cut, maybe dropped on the ground and put back together. And so, it’s important to think about those challenges, but also important to consider are the climate change impacts on water sources.

[00:35:48] And when you put all of this together, that creates hurdles for the clean water access that many tribes, not only the Navajo Nation need.

[00:35:59] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, I really want to do a podcast all about uranium mining on tribal lands. I just learned about that pretty recently and I was like, whoa, I had no idea. And also, it’s not even like you can just clean the water, right?

[00:36:11] Or clean the land? Like once the uranium is there, isn’t it really difficult to extract it in any way that’s not going to leave anything behind that would hurt people?

[00:36:23] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, and I mean, even when you think if you extract it right, like let’s say you have a filter that’s put on a well and you want to extract out the uranium from a filter, like what you think about is, okay, well, this filter has more concentration of that uranium on that filter.

[00:36:43] And then when you think about transport processes for getting rid of waste, or even if you think about reprocessing that meaning, so I used to work at Los Alamos National Lab, then I did a lot of nuclide chemistry and extracting. You know, americium, uranium off of resin. So I mean, I know you can do that. Like you can be able to extract it off of it, but that, that’s a process in itself.

[00:37:13] And with some high elevated levels, those need to be done in glove boxes. And so even thinking about the cleanup process, there’s great risk that may be at hand for susceptibility of elevated levels of radioactivity.

[00:37:30] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah, that’s super scary. So, I know you’re working on a lot of different things all of the time, but I wanted to know if there was maybe one or two really cool sustainable water projects or just projects, you’re really excited about that you would like to share with everybody.

[00:37:45] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah. So, what we’re working on in the Navajo Nation to secure and sustain our water future is working on projects to interconnect public water systems throughout the Navajo Nation, as well as working on resolving our water rights. And we have resolved water rights in some areas like San Juan River Basin in New Mexico, as well as the Navajo/Utah area in Southeastern Utah.

[00:38:14] And with those projects what we’re able to do is, you know, work on projects like the Navajo Gallup Water Supply Project to diversify our water portfolio. Because before water rights we really were predominantly reliant on groundwater, at least for drinking water purposes specifically. And so by doing that, we’re diversifying our water portfolio.

[00:38:37] We continue to use surface water. Projects like the Navajo Indian Irrigation Project where we access San Juan River Water to promote agricultural growing in the region. And so those are a few projects that we’re working on. We’re also working on some innovative technology projects, things like looking at hydro panels, working with entities like the University of Arizona. Dr. Karletta Chief is a PI for something called the Indige-FEWSS the Food, Energy, Water Security & Sovereignty Entity. And you know, looking at these areas, southwestern Navajo areas that may have high total dissolved solids.

[00:39:23] Basically brackish water and try to think about, how can that brine waste be used? And what it can be used for is agriculture and doing like off-grid systems. And so partnership with academic institutions is something that we’re looking at as well as looking at, you know, different types of technology to improve water quality in different areas.

[00:39:48] So those are a few things that we’re doing and it’s just important, you know, for me. Like, yes, it’s a lot. Yes, I’m only one person, but what I really find support in is the capacity that can be built through partnership as well as the resources that can come with that as well. And so, I’m really appreciative for all of our partners out there that help us in various aspects to be able to address the water challenges in the Navajo Nation.

[00:40:17] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Man, that sounds so cool. The brine and using it, I just, I want to go all into that. How are you using it for agriculture? Like to treat the soil?

[00:40:25] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : So these are just kind of small, like farm areas, controlled agriculture. So, you could use like a hoop house to be able to do that in Southwestern Navajo communities, you know.

[00:40:39] And the work, the University of Arizona, Dr. Karletta Chief has been working in collaboration with Diné College to be able to do this type of work. I mean, because when you think about brine, what is that? Right? It’s basically sodium and other things like fertilizer. So, I guess instead of calling it brine, you could call it fertilizer for plants.

[00:41:00] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Cool. That’s rad. So, you take that out of the water, you make the water available as a drinking water, and then you take the brine and then you are able to feed it to your plants. I love that so much. It’s a beautiful system. Okay, so last thing as we wrap it up, do you have a profound or interesting story from working in hydrology that you would like to share?

[00:41:22] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah, definitely. So, the foundational document for the Colorado River was signed in 1922, and so last year was the hundred-year anniversary of that. I mean, but what people who may look at the signatories may see is that, you know, tribes were not there. Mexico was not there. And because that’s a foundational document that provides challenges, right?

[00:41:50] Even things that have come after that, documents that make up the law of the river. But what I’m really encouraged by is the opportunity to have more communication. With the states in the Colorado River Basin as well as the federal government to be able to be more in communication about the management and operation of the reservoirs in the Colorado River system. Not only to talk about near term solutions, but also thinking more long term as well. And so, I’m really encouraged by that. These are in nature, historical conversations. You know, by participating in these efforts, what I’m really trying to be a part of is to be a part of that change, to be able to normalize these conversations so that they’re not historic and that we can continue to work together because, we all rely on the Colorado River, the water in the Colorado River, and when I say that it’s not just, you know, the water that’s flowing in the system from Green River down to the Colorado River, it’s more encompassing in that, as I described, through, you know, all of the water cycle components that contribute to that system.

[00:42:58] I’m encouraged by these conversations because it’s one of those things, right? Like the skills that we learn as an infant. You know, communicating, collaborating, I feel like will really be the skillset that will help us to address these unprecedented challenges with innovative opportunities.

[00:43:19] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Yeah. And hopefully, by working together, make positive change and make sure water is available for every creature, everything in the system.

[00:43:29] Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Ph.D., M.W.R. – Principal Hydrologist : Yeah. Yeah, I, I mean, time and effort is what’s definitely a part of this as well, and I’m invested in the time. I’m invested in the effort for a future, not only for ourselves but also for future generations.

[00:43:49] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Thank you so much, Crystal for teaching us a lot about hydrology, how water works. I’m not going to lie to you. When you were talking about being little and thinking about aquifers, that’s legit kind of how I think about it in my mind. I’m like, oh, it’s like a lava tube full of water and just you describing it as the more, kind of the pores in the rock holding the water.

[00:44:13] It’s kind of just changing whole dream of water in my mind. I’m really grateful to get to expand my knowledge and I hope that you listeners also enjoyed it. And we will definitely have some mining podcasts. I’ve been working on that for a minute. As always, we would like to take a minute to thank our amazing sponsors that make this podcast possible and make all of the work that we do at WRA happen.

[00:44:39] And like I’ve been mentioning a few times, in the last few episodes, we are accepting new sponsors right now, which is amazing. Erika is our person that manages all the sponsorships and she is a truly incredible human, and sponsors get lots of cool things and they get to help the West, so it’s such a win-win.

[00:45:02] And if you’re interested in that, please go in the show notes and visit any of our podcast pages and you can find out more about how your organization can sponsor and support WRA. So right now, I’d like to thank our premier sponsor, Vision Ridge Partners, our signature sponsors Scarpa, and our supporting sponsor Great Basin Colorado.

[00:45:28] And now it is time for my favorite little segment that we do at the end of every episode, “What I like about the West,” it is really just a little love letter to the West and anybody can submit. It’s a one-minute shout-out to the West and if you’re interested, that’s also in the show notes. And you can just email me your voice memo, record it on your phone, send it over to me, and be in the podcast.

[00:45:55] This week we have my buddy, Chris Crow. He works in the solar industry. He’s a musician and a poet. And just an awesome dude. He’s actually my daughter’s guitar teacher too, and he just like me, is an East coast transplant to the West that really loves this space. So let’s hear what Chris has to say.

[00:47:18] Chris Crow: Hi, Jessi and everyone at Two Degrees Out West. This is Chris Crow. What I love about the West lives in an impression memory of the first time I smelled the unmistakable petrichor of the high desert. It’s steeped with desert flora in releasing their perfumes with regard for the time they grew, patient for the rains to return. It was a spiritual experience. The land awakening from another dream into waking life. It represented the pendulum of life and death and keeps me in tune with its unison of balance. There is only but rare places on earth that know the peace of high desert and the pleasure to intertwine with its stories. Now, when I see rain clouds in the distance, it stirs within for the show, much like a child must feel entering a playground.

[00:47:19] Jessi Janusee – Multimedia Storyteller: Thank you so much, Chris. That was really beautiful. Alright, so we are wrapping up this episode. Thank you so much for listening. Two Degrees Out West is a production from Western Resource Advocates. If you want to know more about the work that we do, we are always out here championing for the West for a better, brighter future.

[00:47:39] We’re in the legislative session. We are at the public utility commissions. We are out here on the ground just making sure there’s a voice for the environment, and you can always check out our website at westernresourceadvocates.org. I also highly recommend signing up for our email updates from our experts so you can stay in the know and see all the cool stuff that we’re working on and how you can support by signing some of our action alerts.

[00:48:02] I’m your host, Jessi Janusee, the multimedia storyteller here, and I hope you all have a really beautiful rest of your week and get some time to go outside and really soak up the sun as it’s slowly becoming spring out here. I’m jealous of Arizona. You guys are having a gorgeous super bloom, and we are still freezing out here in Nevada, but that’s alright.

[00:48:24] I’ll see you guys next time. We’re going to have a talk with Austin Campbell about fly fishing in Colorado. It’s a really fun episode. Thanks so much for listening. Have a wonderful day.


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