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The Suitcase: A pandemic-era invention is bringing clean water to the Navajo Nation despite COVID-19

When their work of installing home water systems on the Navajo Nation came to a halt because of the pandemic, one nonprofit got to work on a solution.
Credit: The Navajo Water Project and DigDeep

NAVAJO COUNTY, Ariz. — For many, life has been separated into two eras: before the pandemic and after the pandemic.

Before the pandemic, the Navajo Water Project through the nonprofit DigDeep was going into homes on the Navajo Nation and installing water systems that brought hot and cold running water into people’s homes.

After the pandemic, that work came to a halt even as people lost their jobs and returned home to the Nation. Home sizes swelled to 10 or more people in some cases.

What remained the same, however, was that 30% of homes in the Navajo Nation were without running water. And in a pandemic that required frequent hand washing and social distancing, this fact complicated coronavirus suppression on the Nation.

RELATED: 'If you don't have running water, how can you wash your hands?': Lack of running water complicates coronavirus suppression on Navajo Nation

“Since the pandemic, we're not allowed to go into homes. So, we started [installing] storage tanks. That is a 275-gallon storage tank that we put outside the homes as close as we can get it to the door,” said Cindy Howe, a project manager with DigDeep.

But the water in those storage tanks wasn’t lasting very long for families, especially those that had increased substantially in size. For the people at the Navajo Water Project, this solution wasn’t going to cut it.

The passing of a beloved Navajo Water Project coworker, Ernest Largo, also motivated the team to think outside the box to continue with their work despite the challenges the pandemic presented.

Ernie, as many knew him, was a selfless, spiritual man and a liaison between the Navajo community and the Navajo Water Project.

“He knew the whole community. He knew exactly who needed water, and so he would bring us names of people who really needed our help,” said Cindy.

Ernie passed away from COVID-19.

The Navajo Water Project team heard that while he was in the hospital, he expressed that he wished for the team to go on without him. So, they did.

“One of my coworkers, Kenneth Chavez, came in and said, ‘You know, why can't we just put all the things that we do before we put [the system] inside the house? We can just enclose everything inside a box, sort of like a suitcase,’” said Don Begay, a water solar technician and water truck driver for DigDeep. “So, he thought about it, and he started working on and it worked.”

The Suitcase is an insulated box that houses a water pump, filter, and an expansion tank. The power for the pump comes from solar panels installed on the home. A line is run from the panels to a battery. A switch for the controller was placed on the outside of the box, along with a meter that shows the pressure in the waterline.

“From that water line, [the water] goes directly into a spigot that comes outside of the box,” said Don. “It worked out perfect. We didn't have contact with people or the homeowners. The only time we had to have contact was at the end where they had to come out and understand how things work on the Suitcase.”

Twelve Suitcases have been installed in the Nation thus far. However, the Suitcase is not a permanent solution for the home water systems from the Navajo Water Project.

“We already have the tank in the ground. We already have the pipes close enough to the house to work. When we're allowed to go back into the homes, we’re going to connect into that and put the sink inside the house. So, it's going to become home water systems,” said Cindy.

For now, pandemic restrictions are still in place on the Navajo Nation. But when they lift, the Navajo Water Project team will be ready to continue home water installations.

And the team hopes that they will be driving a truck named Ernie, so their beloved coworker's legacy of making sure those with the greatest need for water in their community will always live on.

“[The guys] wanted to put big Ernie on one of the trucks. So that's something that we got to make sure goes through as well.”

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