Some 80,000 people in the Navajo Nation in Arizona may soon have access to much-needed clean water after 20 years of severe drought in the region.

While Arizona’s biggest aquifer sits directly under their land, it is nearly 400 feet from the surface and not suitable for drinking or domestic use. Because it is full of salt and polluted with arsenic and uranium, Navajo families must drive hundreds of miles away to get potable water. “It is an expensive and time-consuming journey that has become part of the Navajo way of life,” said Kevin Black, a Native American affairs specialist for the Bureau of Reclamation. Thankfully, scientists at the University of Arizona, along with the help of the Bureau, have come up with a solution that will work by using the power of the sun.

The first of (hopefully) many solar-powered and self-sufficient water desalination plants is being constructed on the reservation that will capable of producing over 1,000 gallons of clean water each day for local residents. Construction began last month on the facility and will be completed in 2013. The electricity generated by the solar panels brings water up from the aquifer and boils it to produce steam. The steam then rises and goes through a series of filters which remove the salt and pollutants, where it eventually lands in an external condenser for storage and dispensing.

Developers are hopeful that the system they are building will last at least 30 years and require minimum upkeep. The downside, at least right now, is the price: $100,000. But they believe the per unit price will drop if more of them are built.

“Clean water has become the Navajo’s most precious commodity,” said Black. I would venture to say it is for nearly everyone and am hopeful this kind of solar-powered desalination plant sees widespread adoption around the globe.

[via New Scientist]

Image Credit: Nature’s Images/Flickr