“Over Half of the People Who Used to Grow Crops Here Can’t Do It Anymore”

Since 2017, extreme drought has ravaged
Canyon de Chelly, on the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona. In normal
years, the area receives an average of 12 inches of rain. That’s not the case
recently. The problem is exacerbated by lack of water infrastructure. State and
federal government officials have sometimes withheld
water or funding for water infrastructure
from Navajo, or Diné, communities
during disputes over water rights.

Sylvia Watchman is a farmer from
Chinle, Arizona, a town of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants on the outskirts of Canyon
de Chelly, where Watchman, a member of the Navajo Nation, has lived all her
life. Chinle gets its name from a Navajo word meaning “flowing
out,” referring to the water that once rushed down from the mountains to
fertilize the valley. 

Native farmers can’t count on
that water anymore. Since the 1990s, record drought has put both the farming and
culture of the Navajo, or Diné,
nation at great risk.

“When I drive around the valley,
all I see is this dry land,” Watchman said. “Over half of the people who used
to grow crops here can’t do it anymore. If nobody plants on the land, it will continue
getting even harder, making planting next year almost impossible.” 

Thousands of years ago, the
natural water resources and rich soil made the valley an ideal place to plant
crops and raise families. The melting snow from nearby mountains was another
steady water source for fertilizing the land.

“In April, the snow melted, and
the water ran through the valley, and we used water pumps to irrigate the
fields,” Watchman explained. But things have changed. The
climate has changed.  

Winter storms that used to reach the
Southwest have been pushed further north during the past couple of decades. “This
causes our water table to be very low continuously,” Watchman said.  

As for her own farm, Watchman
witnesses the consequences of drought every day. She has lost crops—corn,
wheat, varieties of fruit. “This spring we planted corn,” Watchman said. “It
grew about two feet and then dried in the sun.” And her peach, apple, and pear
trees have been starved of water: “The fruits are really dry.”

Watchman believes in climate change
and has suggestions for how to respond. As a farmer and a tour guide for local
and international visitors to Canyon de Chelly, Watchman acts as an advocate
for Indigenous culture on many levels. 

“I have noted to the Navajo
Nation Department of Fish and Wildlife that we could cut down trees, especially
olive and cottonwood trees, that consume relatively a lot of the valley’s
scarce water resources,” Watchman said. “More water could also be released from
two reservoir lakes in the canyon. I have not received any responses to my

Amid the disruption and anxiety, Watchman
finds meaning in ancient stories. “My grandparents say that everything has
changed because our traditional way of living has changed,” Watchman explained.
“We are out of balance. Our winter stories are told at schools, books are read
and films watched during the summer. Summer songs are sung during the winter.
When people ask me to tell winter stories during the summer, I say, ‘No, I
cannot do that.’”

Watchman believes that people must
regain a sense of balance with nature: “It is really hard because we cannot
count on the weather as we used to and the way it will treat us.”  

Voices From the Future is a series from the front lines of climate change and extreme weather in collaboration with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory at Arizona State University.

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