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Bernadette Tsosie - Water Protector

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Meet Bernadette Tsosie

Engineer and Hydrologist (Water Scientist)

United States Department of Energy

Department of Legacy Management

This Project - Water Rights for the Navajo Nation

Bernadette Tsosie grew up on the deserts of the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. She helped her grandparents move their cattle and sheep up the mountain to grass meadows in the summer. Bernadette saw the land change as they rode the horse higher and higher. She collected the different kinds of rocks. That is how she started studying geology.

Bernadette's grandmother herself and sister on a horse on Navajo Reservation
Her másání (maternal grandmother Lydia), her sister Bonita, and Bernadette

She also remembers pumping water. Bernadette pumped the water into 50-gallon barrels. They hauled those up the mountain in a pickup truck. Sometimes she helped her parents haul water home with a horse and wagon. That is how she started studying water.

Today, Bernadette is an engineer, and a water scientist, a hydrologist. She protects water. The Bluewater uranium processing site is a good example. Groundwater at the site is radioactive from the uranium. Bernadette helped stop that radioactive water from mixing with nearby clean underground water. Now engineers can keep track of the bad water so it won't hurt humans or the environment.

Bernadette stands in beautiful desert land next to monument for the reclamation project.
After:Site is reclaimed and water is protected

Bernadette is also proud of her work to help get water rights for her people from the San Juan River. Four groups of people use the river water: The Navajo Nation, cities, farmers, and electrical companies. Everyone had to agree how to share the water.

Bernadette needed good communication skills. People in the other groups had to see that the Navajos needed the water. The Navajo people had to agree that the water was divided fairly. It seemed like an impossible problem. But they worked together to write and sign an agreement. Along with other agreements, her tribe now has rights to the water they were promised a hundred years ago.

Bernadette is thankful that her family encouraged her to go to college. Her mother earned a nursing degree while Bernadette was in high school. Her mother said, “Get a degree. Nobody can ever take it away from you.” Her cheii (maternal grandfather) did hard manual labor on the railroad. He told her, “Be like the guys that come with their papers all rolled up. They tell the supervisors what to do. Then they go away. They don’t get dirty.” He wanted Bernadette to be an engineer who carried out the construction designs on big projects. Now she is living his dream.

College wasn’t easy. She was very homesick. She was older than the other students. Then, just before she graduated, her Spanish teacher failed eleven students including Bernadette. That meant she wouldn’t graduate. But Bernadette talked the dean of the college into giving the students a new test, a fair test. Bernadette passed the fair test on Friday. She passed and graduated on Saturday. And that was how she learned about finding solutions to impossible problems, like sharing water in the desert.

Senator Bingaman congraulates Bernadette after water sharing agreement is signed
Bernadette, Senator Bingaman, and her mom (on right)

Photo credits:

Arthur C. Begay painting: Courtesy of Bernadette Tsosie

Bluewater uranium processing site photos: Courtesy of Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management

Diploma: This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC

Navajo and New Mexico San Juan Basin Water Rights Settlement celebration photo: Courtesy of Department of Energy, Office of Legacy Management

Read these books to learn more . . .


by Carol Lindstrome (author) and Michaela Goade (illustrator)

Winner of the 2021 Caldecott Medal

New York Times Bestseller

Inspired by the many Indigenous-led movements across North America, We Are Water Protectors issues an urgent rallying cry to safeguard the Earth’s water from harm and corruption―a bold and lyrical picture book written by Carole Lindstrom and vibrantly illustrated by Michaela Goade.

Water is the first medicine.

It affects and connects us all . . .

When a black snake threatens to destroy the Earth

And poison her people’s water, one young water protector

Takes a stand to defend Earth’s most sacred resource.


by Rochelle Strauss (author), Rosemary Woods (illustrator)

Seen from space, our planet looks blue. This is because almost 70 percent of Earth's surface is covered with water. Earth is the only planet with liquid water --- and therefore the only planet that can support life.

All water is connected. Every raindrop, lake, underground river and glacier is part of a single global well. Water has the power to change everything --- a single splash can sprout a seed, quench a thirst, provide a habitat, generate energy and sustain life. How we treat the water in the well will affect every species on the planet, now and for years to come. One Well shows how every one of us has the power to conserve and protect our global well.


. . . and visit these websites!


NASA Earth Observatory for kids issue, Water Water, Everywhere. For a quick read, you can click here.

Cronkite News has this video from 2017 about running water on the Navajo Nation.

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