Nonprofit Implements Clean Water Solutions for Navajo, Appalachia, and Colonias Communities
An astonishing number of people in the US do not have complete modern plumbing in their homes, according to a 2019 report called Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States. It found that about two million people, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives, people who live in rural or remote areas, and homeless people, lack running water, sinks, tubs, and showers.
In response, the nonprofit organization DigDeep is doing all it can to tackle the problem. It has a simple mission: “Working taps and toilets for every person in the United States.”
Founded in 2011 by George McGraw, DigDeep was originally set up to solve the water crises in South Sudan and Cameroon, but the focus soon shifted.
Kimberly Lemme, executive director of DigDeep Labs, who has a wealth of experience in developing water access programs, explains how a donor offered the organization $50 to solve water problems in the Navajo Nation. “That was the trigger to our founder going to visit that location within the US and understanding the context, and from there conversations were had with the board,” she says. In 2014, the board decided to operate exclusively in the US.
“We’re not necessarily focusing on communities that have access but need better access, because those numbers are much higher […],” she says. “And while we work in partnership with organizations that are addressing that, we are really laser focused on the communities and populations that don’t have any [plumbing] access.”
The 2019 report on water access in the US, compiled by the US Water Alliance and DigDeep, highlights the extent of the problem, including how Native American households are 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing. In rural areas, 17% of people have problems obtaining safe drinking water and 12% have issues with their sewage system.
In rural areas [in the US], 17% of people have problems obtaining safe drinking water and 12% have issues with their sewage system.
Lemme states that six hotspots were identified, “catching a big portion of the populations that are lacking access.”
Projects and Processes
The organization has three projects targeting those hotspot areas:
The Navajo Water Project serves the Navajo Nation of almost 400,000 people in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. An estimated 30% of Navajo families have no running water, and some drive for miles to get water for drinking, cooking, cleaning, and bathing.
Providing a water system involves meeting the family in their home to plan the installation; burying a 1,200-gallon water tank to keep it from freezing; plumbing in a sink, water heater, filter, and drain line; connecting solar power and lights; and filling the tanks with clean water. Once the taps have been turned on, the homeowner learns how to make simple repairs.
Today, 250 septic tanks have been restored through DigDeep’s sanitation pilot program and 300 Navajo families now have access to a water system. An estimated 1.54 million gallons of water have been delivered.
The Appalachia Water Project in rural West Virginia provides water services to those living in terrain blighted by failing old water pipes and contamination from local mines. DigDeep workers build partnerships with the county so that a system can be channeled into more than 400 homes from the main line. Old plumbing is replaced with new sinks and toilets.
Since the project began in 2020, seventy-four households are ready to be connected to a sewer across the two counties of Wyoming and McDowell in West Virginia, and ninety families have received access to piped water.
The Colonias Water Project operates around the Texas-Mexico border, where more than 500,000 people lack basic utility provision. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, colonias refers to scattered homesteads, modular homes, and trailer homes that have little or no modern plumbing. Families have had to buy water in stores or travel a long way to obtain it.
As part of the project, DigDeep workers have held public meetings and developed links with the community to find out what is required before clean running water and access to other utilities are provided. DigDeep has offered seventy-two neighborhood lots running water for the first time in Cochran, near El Paso.
Lemme explains: “We go and meet with local community leaders. We try to understand the context better from the community lens and from the perspective of those on the ground.”
Wherever possible, DigDeep uses local expertise, including engineering or construction firms and the local government’s preferred local providers. The organization does not have a maintenance arm, but its local DigDeep offices are often the first port of call when something goes wrong. According to Lemme, they are “staffed by folks who have grown up and lived in that region, if not their whole life, then most of their life.” Local providers usually carry out any repairs.
DigDeep also works closely with local regulators to make sure the water is as clean as possible and that if an issue arises, it is reported promptly, so it can be addressed systematically.
Assessing Environmental Impact
At the forefront of DigDeep’s work is making sure projects are climate resilient. Lemme says: “We can drill a bore hole and have a community tap stand, but if that groundwater dries up, it’s not really a good infrastructure investment […]. So [we’re] making sure there is an environmental lens on everything we’re doing.”
“We can drill a bore hole and have a community tap stand, but if that groundwater dries up, it’s not really a good infrastructure investment […] . So [we’re] making sure there is an environmental lens on everything we’re doing.”
It’s important, she adds, to not exploit an already over-tapped resource and to make sure that the water isn’t wasted whenever there’s a water point where there might be runoff.
Using materials that are compatible with the soil and working as locally as possible are other vital steps. But it’s not always easy. Lemme explains: “We do run into challenges now and again, and we have to make sure that we’re documenting those and learning from those. So, as we move forward, we can flow the infrastructure as locally and as sustainably as possible. Sometimes those materials look like whatever is the best quality of the day. And that technology tends to evolve over time, and we try to keep up with that.”
Informing its Work
In May 2023, the organization launched DigDeep Labs, a repository for research, innovation, and data to inform services and policymaking. It was established to build on existing research reports, such as Draining: The Economic Impact of America’s Hidden Water Crisis, which quantify the problem.
“There are lots of gaps in the knowledge, so we’re working with partners around the sector to also do that type of data collection. Then the innovation is really how do we get people to work together more effectively, what are the little things that are flying under the radar that might be helping us to close the water access gap,” says Lemme.
Federal Government Responsibility
Apart from working in partnership with local government in project areas, DigDeep also contacts aides on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to raise awareness among members of Congress. “The government has a lot of responsibility, not only to keep water flowing in homes that already have it like mine, but also to […] get us to the finish line and make sure that everyone across the country has access,” Lemme concludes.
*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for non-profit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.