Karletta Chief samples San Juan river water.
Institute of the Environment 2017

When Community Calls

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

by Paulina Jenney, Institute of the Environment

Environmental Protection Agency contractors at the Gold King Mine in Colorado accidentally triggered a three-million gallon toxic spill into the Animas River in 2015, turning the water the color of Tang for nearly a week. As the river cleared, residents of Colorado and New Mexico wondered about the long-term effects of the heavy metals settling into the soil at the bottom of the river.

“I received a lot of questions,” said Karletta Chief, an extension specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. “Because the water is the primary source of irrigation for Navajo farmers, there were a large number of concerns.”

Chief, a member of the Navajo Nation herself, set out to find answers.

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief

Paloma Beamer and Karletta Chief in Window Rock, 
Navajo Nation capital. Courtesy: Karletta Chief

In the past year, she and Paloma Beamer, an associate professor in the UA’s College of Public Health, were awarded more than $1 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environmental and Social Justice at the UA to study the effects of the spill.

The farmers want to know how the spill is going to affect their health,” Chief said.  “They’re asking, ‘If I’m using this water to grow my crops, and then my animals are eating it, and my children are playing in the fields, and I’m selling my crops to other people, what really is the risk that I face from using that water?’”

The researchers will collect soil and water samples from the river, agricultural fields, and irrigation ditches to measure lead and arsenic in three different Navajo communities downstream from the mine. They also will conduct biomonitoring of Navajo families and ask Navajo communities what they think about long-term impacts of the spill. The results of that survey will help Chief’s team develop community-driven research questions and assist in crafting emergency-response plans for future disasters.

“As an extension specialist, my responsibility is to work with communities to develop research projects that address their questions,” Chief said.

Traditional Knowledge Meets Modern Science

The Gold King Mine Spill is just one example of Chief’s work to help native communities adapt to environmental changes. She also serves as a core team member of the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions and its Native Nations Climate Adaptation Program—both based in the Institute of the Environment—where she works with indigenous groups around the Southwest to develop and implement solutions to climate change and other environmental concerns.

“Traditional knowledge in climate initiatives is valuable overall in protecting and preserving indigenous traditions, culture, language, practices, and knowledge, but also protecting indigenous communities from climate change impacts through adaptation,” Chief said.

In recent years, Chief’s work has brought her to the shores of Pyramid Lake in Nevada, where she and Carson Scholar Schuyler Chew are working with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to help determine the ways in which climate change will affect the quantity and quality of water in the area. Pyramid Lake is home to the endangered cui-ui fish, upon which the tribe depends for economic security and cultural identity.

“We looked at what the impacts of climate change would be on the lake,” she said. “We then developed a simple water balance that would help water managers think about potential future scenarios. Now, our next step is to ask different communities what they think about the results and about adaptation, which will help link back to their own traditional knowledge.”