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On The Navajo Nation, Special Ed Students Await Water That Doesn't Stink

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At Saint Michael's Association for Special Education in St. Michaels, Ariz., the tap water sometimes runs yellow, brown and black.

On the Navajo Nation, kids with the most severe developmental disabilities attend a school called Saint Michael's Association for Special Education.

Dameon David, 8, is waking up from a nap in his classroom. He has come to the school in northeastern Arizona for four years. He has cerebral palsy, seizures and scoliosis. His mom, Felencia Woodie, picks him up from a bed with Superman sheets.

"Other schools that he was going to go to, they didn't have the nursing staff or the equipment he goes in, or the trained staff that they have here to do his suctioning, his feeding and his medications daily," she says.

Woodie, who also works at Saint Michael's, says the only problem with the school is its water.

"It has a certain stench to it. Sometimes you'll smell ... kinda like a egg smell," Woodie says. "Sometimes it's yellow, brown, or even we've seen black."

Many of the kids at Saint Michael's are medically fragile. So they have equipment that needs to be cleaned daily. The staff refuses to use the tap water to wash equipment. Instead, they use 5-gallon jugs of filtered water trucked in from many miles away.

More than one-third of the Navajo Nation — which is the size of West Virginia — doesn't have running water. And at some of the places that do, like Saint Michael's, people don't want to drink it because it smells, tastes funny and looks bad.

In another classroom, volunteer Jacob Lundy helps two young girls with autism wash their hands at the sink. The water runs yellow.

"What's odd to me is how normal it becomes for the water in the laundry room to come out black," Lundy says. "And it's just like we don't think about it anymore."

In the sink you can see the residue from the black water. It looks like sand.

Gregory Bahe, water and waste water operations supervisor at the utility, says the strange color, smell and taste are all likely due to stagnant water. He says the water lines are so far apart that the water sits stagnant for long periods.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority tests the water at Saint Michael's monthly and says it meets national primary drinking water standards.

While it's not poisonous, there is still the matter of appearance.

"People typically won't drink water if it tastes bad or if it looks bad or if it stinks," says Adam Bringhurst, who studies water resources at Northern Arizona University.

He says the Environmental Protection Agency has established two levels of standards. The primary standard — filtering contaminants that harm your health — is required by law. The secondary standard — eliminating taste, color and smell — is voluntary.

"The secondary standards are typically considered aesthetics," Bringhurst says.

But those secondary standards are still very important, he says.

"We all need to drink water. And when your only option is to go to the store and pay really high prices, that also carry a really big footprint with them, it's a bad situation for everyone," Bringhurst says.

Saint Michael's spent almost $3,000 last year on bottled water alone. That's a big cost for a school with so many expenses and one that a better water filtration system could alleviate.

So a school volunteer contacted Dig Deep, a nonprofit that digs wells and makes water accessible throughout the region. George McGraw, Dig Deep's founder and executive director, is especially concerned for the disabled kids.

"These are people that rely on us, on their teachers, on their government officials, on society at large, to make sure that their most basic needs are taken care of. And what's more basic than having access to clean running water?" McGraw says.

The organization is raising $100,000 to build a water filtration system for Saint Michael's. It hopes to install it this summer so the water is more than just technically safe. It will be something kids and staff actually want to drink.

Laurel Morales is a reporter with NPR member station KJZZ in Flagstaff, Ariz. You can follow her @laurelgwyn.

Copyright 2017 KJZZ-FM. To see more, visit KJZZ-FM.

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