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As a native community faces relocation, UNM designs an off-the-grid solution

April 2, 2018 - Vanessa Tan

Church Rock, N.M. has been home to the Diné, Navajo people, long before uranium mines appeared during the Cold War and is the site of one of the worst nuclear accidents in recorded U.S. history. On-going and slow-paced uranium mine waste cleanup efforts are forcing nearby families of the Diné Red Water Pond Road Community to seek permanent relocation—which could mean leaving their ancestral lands.

While many researchers are investigating the impacts of the thousand tons of uranium tailings and million gallons of contaminated wastewater on the land, the environment and the people, a team at The University of New Mexico is seeking to address the immediate challenge of relocating the families to a place free of contamination while remaining on their ancestral lands.

“The Red Water Pond Road Community Planning Project is a humbling opportunity for our faculty and students to work with a community that has a great need—to continue living on ancestral lands in which they have a deep connection that cannot be severed,” said Catherine Harris, assistant professor of landscape architecture and art and ecology and principal investigator.

“Ultimately, this project is for the Diné. It gives agency to the community so they can realize a sustainable and thriving future for all generations.”  —Catherine Harris

The project marries the on-the-ground expertise of a community living with uranium contamination and remediation efforts with the design expertise of UNM’s School of Architecture and Planning and Civil Engineering department and the international focus on indigenous rights of the Indigenous Design and Planning Institute. $20,000 in funding from the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and the UNM Office of the Vice President for Research has enabled the team to design a sustainable settlement for the remaining families of the Diné Red Water Pond Road Community atop a nearby mesa, on their ancestral grazing lands.

“The mesa does not have access to electricity, running water nor does it have paved roads. Cleanup and remediation efforts are complex and expensive; building the infrastructure to and on the mesa adds to the cost and the timeline,” notes Harris. “Our design proposes a timely and cost-effective solution that meets the community’s need to stay on their ancestral lands by using alternative methods for the infrastructure—that is going off-the-grid.”

Last year, faculty and students from UNM’s Architecture and Engineering schools created a pilot design/feasibility project for an off-the-grid settlement that harnesses sustainable technologies such as rain water harvesting, renewable energy collection and storage, alternative sewage treatment, as well as construction of buildings and roads.

This year, the team is building on the previous work and is working closely with the community to refine the design into a final community plan that will fit the community’s needs—which will include the design for a community Peace Center. The team is developing physical models and 3D/Virtual Reality renderings to make the design tangible and immerse the community into the plan so that they can see that their future on the mesa is within reach. The final community plan will be made available via a website and will be the basis for future funding opportunities that include design of a community system for water, energy, food and waste.

Harris hopes the project's scenarios for alternate designs for the settlement will empower the community with the understanding of the physical ramifications of tradeoffs, for example more water collection requires more built space, conventional waste treatment denies the opportunities for methane harvest, etc.

Harris concludes, “Ultimately, this project is for the Diné. It gives agency to the community so they can realize a sustainable and thriving future for all generations.”