BLANDING, Utah — Renae Gene admits having electricity for the first time in her Diné community of Westwater is taking some time for her and her four children to get used to.
The power is prompt and always available, there’s no need to worry about gas levels in the generators or the storage levels from the solar panels, and the family is learning to be conservative and conscious now with monthly utility bills.
But Gene — a member of the Blanding 7th Ward in the Blanding Utah Stake — noticed another stark difference on Sept. 1, the first day electricity surged through new power lines strung along newly posted utility poles throughout Westwood’s 29 home lots.
That difference was the change in the evening sounds. Gone were the loud droning of generators powering the homes.
“After the electricity came on, everything seemed to go dead in Westwater — the generators weren’t running anymore, so there was no noise whatsoever,” she said. “You can hear the animals and the crickets and the dogs barking.”
Electricity in the community of Westwood is the first phase of a much-needed, two-part utility project for the Diné (Navajo) community just west of Blanding, Utah, across the small creek bed bearing the Westwater name.
The project — to bring public power and running culinary water — to the residential lots in Westwater is a cooperative effort linking the state of Utah, the city of Blanding, the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with the Church playing a key role in project funding.
Community members and project stakeholders commemorated the completion of the electrical phase with a Friday, Sept. 16, celebration ceremony and dinner. Representing the Church at the event were Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Elder Jose L. Alonso, first counselor in the North America Southwest Area (southeastern Utah pertains to that area and not the Church’s Utah Area).
Joining Utah Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and others as keynote speakers, Elder Uchtdorf underscored the collaborative successes by revisiting the message from his well-known “Lift Where You Stand” October 2008 general conference address.
The Apostle told the Church News he was familiar with the project’s past, as it was stalled by divisions, difficulties and obstacles. “It was possible to move closer together … and as we move closer together and lift where we stand, we can move anything in the world.”
Involvement of area presidency, Elder Echo Hawk
Elder Uchtdorf praised the lieutenant governor’s persistent effort and working closely with the North America Southwest Area presidency, whom he called “very instrumental here.” He also singled out Elder Larry J. Echo Hawk, an emeritus General Authority Seventy who had served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs and is now working in the Utah governor’s office as special counsel on Native American affairs.
“Elder Echo Hawk was the one who took this to the governor and said, ‘This is a place where we need to do something — it needs to be done,’” Elder Uchtdorf said.
He joined several others who both publicly and privately underscored Elder Echo Hawk’s persistent encouragement of and effort in drawing in the state, city, tribe, utilities and Church as key to the project’s success.
Elder Uchtdorf, who stopped off in Westwater after arriving in Blanding and before the start of the ceremony, compared the difference between the community and its lack of water and electricity with adjacent Blanding and its full utilities. “I said, ‘Wow, it’s such a short distance away, but it is almost further away than the moon in regard to those basic services.’ …”
The celebration included an invocation that served as a blessing of healing on the Westwater community and valley as well as a ceremonial “turning on the lights” as lights outlining a large block “W” were illuminated. Navajo and English were used by those who spoke and sang, and fittingly, a view of the Westwater community served as a backdrop for the ceremony held on the Utah State University Blanding campus.
Bringing electricity and water to Westwood has been a political and logistical challenge and hot potato over the years.
Originally a settlement on Bureau of Land Management land, Westwood is on property that the Navajo Nation purchased a half-century ago. But it isn’t part of or adjacent to the Navajo reservation, and it isn’t part of the city of Blanding, either.
The electrical portion of the project now ties Westwater into Blanding’s power grid, providing a pass-through for electricity owned by the tribal utility authority.
‘Still pretty weird having electricity’
The 32-year-old Gene grew up on a Westwater lot adjacent to the one where her small home sits today, using candles and lamp oils for lighting. “We didn’t know any different,” she said of being without electricity. It wasn’t until after high school that “I realized it was easier in town” for Blanding residents who had homes with electricity.
Now, she and her four children — ages 1 month to 12 years — will have electricity not only for lighting but for heating and ventilation, cooking, refrigeration, appliances, and TV and entertainment systems.
“It’s still pretty weird having electricity after so many years of not having it,” Gene admitted.
“Now it’s just water we’re waiting for, so hopefully that will be accomplished next year.”
There is some doubt on the timing, since Westwater was told to expect power last Christmas. But supply chains for materials have been stretched thin since the COVID-19 pandemic, and the electrical start was delayed for more than a half-year.
Running culinary water is the second key element of the promise to bring basic utilities to Westwater, with broadband for internet services to come later. Plans call for a deep-water well for the community.
For now, Westwater residents will continue to truck in water to their homes. For Gene, it means purchasing a $10 ticket for 1,000 gallons, going to the city’s water shed to retrieve the water and then returning to transfer it to an outside underground storage tank. However, like many of her neighbors, she can only transport about 300 gallons at a time, and the ticket is for a one-time use, meaning she actually gets less than a third of what she could and pays several times more on a per-gallon average cost.
Light, water and the Savior
In his comments during the ceremony Elder Uchtdorf compared the work of the different partners on the Westwater project with the work of the worldwide Church in trying to follow the Savior’s example. “By focusing on the one and being our brother’s keeper, we strengthen and unite divided communities and help to make the world a better place.”
And with lights and water being delivered to Westwater, the Apostle testified of Jesus Christ, reminding his listeners that the Savior is the ultimate Light and Living Water for all.