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Empowering Citizen Scientists:

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

Water Sampling on the Navajo Nation through the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange

Written by:

Kenneth Swift Bird; Ph.D. Candidate Colorado School of Mines, & Devon Kerins; AGU-H3S

As scientists and researchers, we often think of the broader impact of our work and ask ourselves how communities will interpret and use the work we have done. But recently, more efforts have been placed on conducting Community Science which embodies a collaborative and inclusive methodology where scientists and communities “do science together” to solve the problems that matter to that community. This approach values different kinds of knowledge and combines the insights of local people with the expertise of scientists. In the spirit of conducting science to empower people and the environment, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Thriving Earth Exchange program shows how scientists and communities can team up to make a positive impact.

Each project is spearheaded by community leaders. Thriving Earth Exchange matches with scientists and fellows that can assist with scientific knowledge, networks, and project management. One compelling illustration of this collaborative approach revolved around evaluating the ground and drinking water in three Navajo Nation Communities nestled in the Four Corners Region of the Colorado Plateau. The project was brought forth by community leaders from the Navajo communities, where a staggering 30% of residents grapple with the absence of clean water. Despite the Winters Doctrine of 1908 affirming tribal entitlement to water for their enduring homelands, the unsettled state of the Navajo Nation’s water rights*, particularly concerning their rightful share of Colorado River water, remains a complex challenge. Adding to the challenge of water scarcity, the scars of intensive resource extraction on Navajo land have left a trail of mine seepage, tainting groundwater sources. The consequences are far-reaching: water must be hauled in or sourced from alternatives like livestock wells – known for potentially having high arsenic and uranium content – as a last resort. This unsettling reality not only negatively impacts public health but also strikes at the core of Navajo spirituality, where water is revered as both sacred and living. This Thriving Earth Exchange project aimed to empower Navajo community members and youths by training them in water quality sampling, testing methods, data interpretation, and scientific communication.

Kenneth Swift Bird, Ph.D. Candidate at the Colorado School of Mines, gives his insights serving as a community scientist on this project:

Kenneth Swift Bird and colleagues standing around a conference table
Kenneth Swift Bird (left) and colleague Ian Gambill (second from left) with community leaders and local students of the Northern Navajo Nation project.

The spark that led to my interest in hydrology was water quality issues on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I am an Oglala Lakota Tribal member and grew up near the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Growing up, I heard my family and other community members voice concerns about arsenic and uranium in drinking water sourced from an aquifer with nearby mines and local bedrock enriched in metals. This problem shaped my scientific interests, and I had a chance to study arsenic and uranium dissolution in groundwater of the Pine Ridge Reservation for my MS thesis at Colorado School of Mines. Unfortunately, metal-enriched groundwater and mining impacts are prevalent and pervasive across many Indigenous communities in the western US, with 75% of abandoned uranium mines located within 50 miles of a Tribal community (Lewis et al., 2017). Many Indigenous communities are rural and remote, and households often rely on well water as their primary drinking water source, in many cases with minimal to no water treatment prior to consumption.

I was approached to join the project by Kate Evans, a biology PhD student at University of Montana and community science fellow with AGU Thriving Earth Exchange for the Northern Navajo Nation project. A health survey conducted on the Navajo Nation revealed that many community members were fearful of arsenic, uranium, and petroleum products in their drinking water, and would opt for other beverages rather than drinking water from their tap. Carmen George, a community leader started the Thriving Earth project with the goal of building trust in local water sources, delineating areas with poor water quality that may be in need of remediation or further water treatment, and empowering local youth as community leaders. The goals for the project were to sample local water sources in three Navajo communities: Red Mesa, Teec Nos Pos, and Bluff (Utah), train local high school students on geoscience concepts  and water sampling, and engage broader community members to discuss sampling results and water quality on the Navajo Nation.

After hearing an overview about the project, the water issues faced by community members on the Navajo Nation sounded resoundingly similar to what I grew up hearing about water on Pine Ridge. I agreed to join the project as a community scientist. I also recruited  friend and colleague Ian Gambill, a Dine hydrology MS student at Mines, to serve as a community scientist. We worked collaboratively with community leaders Malyssa Egge, John Hosteen, and Kerlissa Bitah to recruit local students, design geoscience curriculum, and plan water sampling activities in three communities. We recruited 2-3 students from each community, ranging in education level from 7th grade to community college. Given the range in student education levels and experiences, our curriculum planning centered on introductory topics in chemistry, geoscience, and hydrology to explain metal fate and transport processes, utilizing hands-on demonstrations to familiarize students with contaminant hydrology and water sampling.

We traveled to the Navajo Nation for three different monthly training meetings, each hosted in one of our partner communities. The first meeting focused on hydrology, geochemistry, and geoscience basics, the second meeting focused on water sampling and chemical units, and the third meeting focused on data analysis and interpretation. Science curriculum was complemented with Dine cultural teachings on water, a rafting trip, and a visit to Fort Lewis College. The students sampled community water sources during the middle of the program, and collected 10-15 water samples from each community for a total of ~40 water samples. They sampled water from drinking water sources (i.e., home water taps), and non-drinking water sources (i.e., livestock wells and other non-potable sources). In our sampling program, our students found elevated levels (i.e., above U.S. EPA water quality standards) of uranium in several non-drinking water sources, but all but one drinking water sample was below U.S. EPA Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) for arsenic, uranium, and petroleum products. Based on the results of our sampling campaign, we advocated for adequate warning signs for wells that exceeded water quality standards, more water testing, and water filtration options for wells with elevated metal concentrations. The students were compensated for their time spent working on the project and wrapped up their work by presenting their findings at local community meetings.

Feedback on this project from students and their parents was overwhelmingly positive. Students indicated that they were more likely to pursue college education, STEM careers, and view themselves as community leaders and environmental advocates. We engaged both students and broader communities to investigate water quality on the Navajo Nation, and train local students on geoscience concepts. Based on the success of this AGU Thriving Earth project, we are continuing to work with the same Navajo community leaders to develop a summer science workshop in 2024. I have been fortunate to have many incredible mentors in my educational journey, and being able to mentor the next generation of Indigenous students is one of the most meaningful highlights of my career.

The collaborative approach of the AGU Thriving Earth Exchange program exemplifies the transformative power of community science. By bridging the gap between scientific expertise and local knowledge, the program has not only addressed pressing environmental concerns but has also empowered and educated the Navajo community. The success of the water quality project in the Navajo Nation underscores the importance of inclusive, community-driven research. It has not only provided tangible solutions to water quality issues but has also inspired a new generation of Indigenous students to see themselves as future leaders in STEM fields. As communities worldwide grapple with environmental challenges, such collaborative endeavors serve as a beacon, highlighting the potential of united efforts to drive positive change.

* For most Western states, water rights are based on the principles of prior appropriation and beneficial use. Prior appropriation allocates water rights based on timing of use, place of use and purpose of use. It allows for diverting water from its source to fulfill water rights and determines who gets water during times of shortage (Hockaday, 2020).

Additional Links: 


Hockaday, S. O., K.J. (2020). Western Water Law: Understanding the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation.,prior%20appropriation%20and%20beneficial%20use

Lewis, J., Hoover, J., & MacKenzie, D. (2017). Mining and Environmental Health Disparities in Native American Communities. Curr Environ Health Rep, 4(2), 130-141.

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