James “Lucky” Deans is used to working in times of crisis.
Over the years, the electrical lineman has traveled up and down the East Coast with fellow crew members in the wake of hurricanes and natural disasters, lending a hand to public power utilities and repairing downed power lines in communities left without electricity.
“The first couple times I've gone on (mutual aid trips), we park all the trucks and you just get up, and you look, and it’s just hundreds or thousands of bucket trucks just sitting there,” Deans said.
But over the summer, Deans and nine other lineworkers from Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission were dispatched to Arizona, not because of a flash flood or wildfire — they were there to help bring power to an estimated more than 13,500 families of the Navajo Nation currently living without electricity.
Light Up Navajo is an initiative run by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) in partnership with the American Public Power Association — a coalition of 2,000 community- and municipality-owned utilities across the United States — and bills itself as “mutual aid without a storm.”
Since 2019, the project has brought electricity to the homes of 712 Navajo families.
Mutual aid, a reciprocal form of community assistance, is common in the public power industry.
Over 1,100 utilities in the country are connected by a national mutual aid agreement, with the express purpose of assisting one another in times of need; they share crews, vehicles and resources when systems need to be restored. For example, the damage caused by 2018’s Hurricane Florence saw crews from Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia make their way to North Carolina during PWC's restoration efforts.
In the context of Light Up Navajo, mutual aid efforts fill in gaps left by a bureaucratic network of federal and tribal land regulations and a failure on the U.S. government’s part to support and include Native communities in rural electrification efforts during the 1930s.
‘Old-school’ line work
The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, spread across more than 27,000 square miles and covering portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The reservation is roughly the size of the state of West Virginia, with close to 400,000 enrolled tribal members — more than 170,000 of whom live on the Navajo Nation.
Yet tens of thousands of Navajo citizens do not have electricity, often forced to drive miles to fill up water tanks or to rely on generators or portable coolers for basic necessities.
As part of the Light Up Navajo initiative, crews from public utilities across the country traveled to the Navajo Nation between April and July for one to two weeks at a time to offer their volunteer services, setting up power lines in rural homesteads.
PWC originally intended to send a crew in 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic — which had devastating impacts on the Navajo Nation — delayed participation until this past June. Twenty-six utilities from 16 states participated in the 2023 summer project, building 51.6 miles of new power lines.
“For us, hearing about this effort to bring electricity to people in the United States that have never had it — it just seemed like that was really a disservice to those folks that, out of all the resources that we have in the United States, we couldn't provide electricity to these folks,” Jon Rynne, chief operating officer of PWC’s electrical systems, said. “I think that our general mindset was we're in that business, we have the ability to help with that.”
The work that PWC crews took on this summer also served dual purposes, helping to connect Navajo citizens to the power grid while also training younger lineworkers in a form of line work that Rynne describes as more old-fashioned.
“This program involves a tremendous amount of what I would call ‘old-school-type line work,’ where they're climbing poles, stringing wire from hooks, and not using the conveniences that we have, at our utilities, where most of what you’re doing is using a bucket truck or a digger derrick or something right off the road to do the work that you’re doing,” Rynne said.
PWC crew members were paired with two NTUA workers, both of whom Deans and fellow lineworker Stone Johnson recalled as being incredibly meticulous. For example, one set of poles used to string up power lines, set six miles apart, was so straight that Deans said if he looked down the road, all he could see was a single pole in his line of vision.
It’s precise and intense work. In the two weeks that PWC lineworkers were out on the reservation, they installed three miles of line and connected power to 13 families. In one location, drilling a single hole to set up a pole took over an hour and a half because of the rocky terrain, Deans recalled.
Many of the work sites that crews get dispatched to are in remote locations, thus presenting the “perfect training scenario,” said Deenise Becenti, the government and public affairs manager for NTUA. Each day, PWC’s crew had to drive an hour and a half to and from work sites and their hotel off the reservation.
Becenti — who is a Navajo citizen — herself grew up with her grandparents whose homestead was in an area on the reservation without electricity or running water. She described some of the citizens who’ve been hooked up to electricity through the Light Up project, from a 93-year-old elder who’s resided in his homestead since the 1940s, to a young woman who broke down in tears because she would be able to continue schooling online.
“It's heart-wrenching when you hear their stories,” Becenti said.
‘We’re doing what we can to catch up’
Mutual aid efforts, like Light Up Navajo, help whittle down the number of Navajo citizens who need electricity. But the U.S. government’s long history of resource extraction and the exclusion of tribes in federal policy are key components of the larger systemic disparities that persist in electrification efforts.
In 1936, Congress passed the “Rural Electrification Act” as a proposal in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The act allowed the federal government to make loans to Americans living in rural areas to install electrical distribution systems. But tribes like the Navajo Nation were left out.
Additionally, energy extraction by the U.S. government when it comes to resources like coal and uranium means that power has been concentrated off the reservation, benefiting communities other than the Navajo.
“I don't know if it was just because of a lack of awareness, but the Navajo Nation has truly not benefited from that legislation back in the ‘30s,” Becenti said. “So, right now, we're doing what we can to catch up.”
NTUA, managed by the Navajo Nation as a nonprofit, operates a large majority of electricity, water and wastewater services on the reservation. It was established in 1959 “to address the absence of utilities” on the Nation, its website states.
“While other homes across the U.S. gained electricity in the early 1930s, the first large scale effort to do so on Navajo Nation was not until 1980 when NTUA received financial assistance to do so, through its first loan from the USDA Rural Utility Service,” said researchers Heather Tanana and Warigia Bowman in a recent Brookings Institution report. “While loans are certainly better than no funding at all, treaty and trust responsibilities create a federal obligation to support electrification in Indian country by providing grant funding.”
NTUA estimates that it costs, on average, $40,000 to connect a single family to electricity. Because a significant portion of the Navajo Nation's land is held in trust by the U.S. government, there are certain federal regulations that they must adhere to when it comes to right-of-way acquisition or building permits, Becenti said. She estimates that more than a third of the cost to hook up one family is because of those permits.
There are also tribal land regulations that Navajo citizens must contend with as part of electrification, such as a homesite lease application — a process that can take years, Becenti said.
Most recently, the Navajo Nation was granted over $1 billion through the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act for the construction of water pipelines and electrification efforts, among other infrastructure projects.
Still, Becenti said the regulations to connect families to electricity shouldn’t be so stringent.
“Our families do live in scattered home sites; they are living on land their forefathers had homesteaded for generations,” she said. “So it's not as simple as to move to a community to have access to utilities.
“People do want to be where their grandparents have been, and to be on the land where they can raise their children and their grandchildren,” she continued.
For PWC’s lineworkers, getting to install electricity in homes on the reservation — for some individuals who’ve waited years — was deeply impactful. When each crew wrapped up their assignment, the NTUA held an appreciation dinner that was also attended by families who were hooked up to power, which PWC and NTUA employees described as emotional.
Stone Johnson, another lineworker who traveled to the Navajo Nation this summer, is hopeful he’ll get to join PWC’s crews again in 2024 as a part of the Light Up Navajo initiative.
“It was awesome to be a part of bringing electricity to a part of our nation that I believe was, personally, well overdue,” Johnson said. “And if I had the opportunity to go back, I wouldn't think twice about it.”
Contact Maydha Devarajan at email@example.com.