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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Navajo Tribal Utility Rushes To Connect Over 500 Homes Before CARES Act Funding Deadline

A man climbs to the top of a power pole in front of a red rock butte
Courtesy of Navajo Tribal Utility Authority
An electric line crew installs a power line in Monument Valley. Navajo Tribal Utility Authority crews are working to extend electricity to 510 homes throughout the Navajo Nation using money from the CARES Act.

Chastity De Guzman and her four children have lived in a home on the Navajo Nation without power since 2015. She said they had been on a waiting list for over two years when a crew finally showed up in September to connect their home to electricity.

“It was emotional,” De Guzman said. “Electricity was, like, essential for us, and especially with the pandemic going on, it’s made things a lot easier.”

Her home in Aneth is one of 27 in Utah that have received power from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority this fall, according to Deenise Becenti, a spokesperson for the company.

It received $14.5 million from the Tribe’s $714 million federal CARES Act allotment to connect 510 homes. Becenti said crews started work on the project in June, after the Tribe received $600 million in May following legal delays. So far, she said they’ve made it to 380 houses, or about 75 a month, and there are 130 left to connect before the funding expires on Dec. 30.

To do that, crews are working 10 hours a day, seven days a week, according to Field Superintendent CJ Carl.

“We’re pushing harder,” Carl said. “The guys are sacrificing a lot of family time, pushing seven days a week.”

Becenti said the utility authority will try to find alternate funding to connect any homes that cannot be reached by the deadline.

“The Dec. 31 deadline is a big hindrance and challenge,” he said. “If the timeline was extended there is a good possibility that we would be able to connect more homes.”

The homes on the list are all within a mile of a power line, according to the utility authority’s general counsel Arash Moalemi. He said they chose those homes because of right-of-way requirements: any longer than a mile, and the utility authority would have had to go through an extensive clearance process for each connection.

The authority also received money from the CARES Act to purchase solar units for homes that aren’t close to an existing power line. Moalemi said they received 1,200 applications for that program when they opened it up earlier this fall, but were only able to purchase around 400 units because of supply chain issues. At least 24 are set to be installed in homes in Utah.

Moalemi estimates there are around 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation without electricity.

The Tribe gave the utility authority $147 million overall, which Moalemi said is almost three times the company’s annual budget. That money is being used to upgrade internet towers, install water cisterns and wells, set up WiFi hotspots, lay down fiber for broadband internet, and renovate wastewater treatment centers across the Nation.

In Utah, the company created WiFi hotspots at the Aneth and Mexican Water Chapter Houses, and is working on updating all of its internet towers to improve service.

Those projects are consistent with CARES Act guidelines, according to Moalemi, because they will help reduce the spread of COVID-19 on the reservation by helping people stay at home.

“This is obviously a sanitary and health issue,” he said. “And it would directly combat Covid if these families can receive water, electricity and internet at home.”

Any money the utility authority cannot spend by the end of the year will go into the Nation’s Hardship Assistance Fund in December to be distributed to individual tribal members. Online applications for hardship assistance are open until the end of November.

Corrected: November 25, 2020 at 4:41 PM MST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when the Navajo Nation's federal CARES Act funding expired.
Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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