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

Canyon de Chelly, part of Navajo Nation lands in Arizona, has been suffering from worsening droughts.

Sylvia Watchman holds a basket of peaches in Canyon de Chelly.
Courtesy of Kelly Vaughn
Sylvia Watchman holds a basket of peaches in Canyon de Chelly.

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 requests.”  

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.