Walker wins award for water tests conducted on Navajo reservations

Mark Walker, a professor and chair of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, received a 2010 Project of Excellence award in January from the National Water Program for his research testing unregulated water supplies in the Navajo Nation.

The recognition Walker received for testing Navajo water supplies in New Mexico and Arizona has led to invitations to do research work in other parts of the world, including Samoa, where he recently spent 10 days researching the parasite leptospira and leading a workshop on preventing water supply contamination.

Walker's work with the Navajo Nation focused on the 25 percent of Navajo dwellings using domestic water that isn't regulated due to the high cost of delivering clean water to remote areas. These areas not served by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority rely on windmill-driven pumps that store water in tanks designed for stock watering. His project paired faculty and students from the University of Nevada with Dine College, a community college system in the Navajo Nation.

Walker said the project involved sampling unregulated water supplies for E. coli, uranium, arsenic and fluoride. Students from the two schools traveled throughout the northern region of the Navajo Nation to locate the water supplies, measure the physical characteristics of the water and inspect each site. The work began in 2007, and 98 wells have been sampled over three seasons.

The sample showed that 30 percent of the unregulated supplies exceeded federal standards for arsenic, 11 percent for uranium and 3 percent for fluoride. Fifteen percent tested positive for E. coli. The information supported educational efforts, further testing and efforts to extend public water supplies.

"However, the most profound impact has been on the Navajo students involved in the program who have developed interests in STEM disciplines and skills that qualify them for technical work focused on water quality," Walker said.

The National Water Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. It acknowledges water resource professionals working with citizens, communities and agencies on water resource problems in the U.S. Walker spent years in Churchill County testing private wells, whose owners often don't know if the water is safe. Walker will continue testing Navajo water supplies this summer.