Arizona's Navajo and Hopi Tribes Have Won a
Water-Rights Battle Against the
Coal Company That Has Sustained Their Fragile Economies. But on the Threshold
of Victory, a Sobering Question: Now What?
Sean Patrick Reily
Times Staff Writer
far away from us, people have no understanding that their demand
for cheap electricity, air conditioning and lights 24 hours a day have
contributed to the imbalance of this very delicate place." — Nicole
Navajo, Black Mesa
years upon years beneath star-heavy skies, the Navajo awakened before
sun rose over northeastern Arizona's Black Mesa to guide their sheep to the
natural waters of desert washes and springs to beat the overwhelming heat of
day. For those who kept cattle in more modern times, they dug wells powered
windmills to pump groundwater into drinking troughs. The Hopi, farmers whose
reservation borders Black Mesa's fringe, channeled these same waters onto
hillside terraces where they planted their sacred and sustaining crops of corn.
that was when there was water on Black Mesa.
few Navajo lead their sheep to water, the cattle troughs are no longer
full, and the Hopi have abandoned many of the terraces as their springs,
washes and groundwater have gone dry. Instead, they drive as far as 25 miles,
often over untended roads, to water stations where they fill 55-gallon barrels
roped into pickup trucks. The disappearance of their water is threatening a
traditional lifestyle for the Navajo and Hopi, who so value tradition that
voted not to have gaming and the millions of dollars it has brought to other
Native American tribes. They do not blame the drought that has plagued the
for so many years now. They blame Peabody Western Coal Co.'s Black Mesa mine,
which they say has been siphoning their water for three decades, and their
tribal governments that have allowed that water use.
the water from the Navajo aquifer, as deep as 3,000 feet beneath
Black Mesa, the mine pumps water aboveground, where it propels crushed coal
slurry mixture 273 miles through a pipeline to Southern California Edison's
Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. There the aquifer water is drained
and the coal is dried and burned, producing 3% of Southern California's
electricity, or enough to power 1.5 million homes. On an average day, Peabody
3.3 million gallons of water from below Black Mesa.
which pays the tribes $4.3 million annually for the water, argues
that the water sources above and below ground are not related. The company
commissioned studies, hired consultants and created a computer model simulating
the effects of water taken from the aquifer. Their findings show that God and
the weather, not the coal company, are to blame for the Navajo and Hopi
hardship. And they say they have the science to prove it.
is because they are using Western science," says Vernon Masayesva,
a Hopi who sits as executive director of the Black Mesa Trust, a nonprofit
organization founded to safeguard the Navajo aquifer and surrounding land. "In
Western science they will tell you everything is disconnected in neat little
compartments. In telling you the water [on the surface] is not connected to
aquifer, they are telling you your thumb is not connected to your toes. The
Hopi [and Navajo] are saying that it doesn't work that way. In our science,
know everything is interconnected. Everything is universally together, each
to make the other work."
mining began on Black Mesa in 1970, the local Navajo and Hopi have
fought its operation on a grass-roots level, pitting their science against
science with little result. But in recent years, they took another step.
Adopting the tactics of Western politics, they began organizing, lobbying and
voting—steps unfamiliar to their cultures. The result is that today,
combination of new politics and "Indian science," they have Peabody
if everything is, indeed, interconnected.
Mesa is a hand-shaped landmass that covers 5,400 square miles near
northern border of the Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. Its surface
eases from a scant cover of desert grasses and brush into low stretches of
juniper and piñon, and ultimately rock and boulders. It's bone-dry desert
yet beneath is the Navajo aquifer, a porous, water-bearing sandstone layer
that stretches 7,500 square miles and holds about 17 times the amount of water
Lake Powell. Thousands of years of the earth's settling put the water under
great pressure, so that cracks in the sandstone traditionally brought forth
Mesa also is home to rich coal deposits. With Southern California's
voracious appetite for energy, the U.S. Department of the Interior in the
mid-1960s brokered a deal with the Navajo Nation and the Hopi tribe to open
Because Black Mesa was so remote, with no access to rail or traditional
shipping, the only way to move the coal profitably was to build a slurry pipeline.
Black Mesa is the only mine in the world to use a water-propelled pipeline
coal delivery, yet it does so from one of the most arid regions in the U.S.,
where two Native American cultures consider water a centerpiece of their
existence. The plan, approved by unsophisticated tribal governments at the
was a recipe for controversy.
then a high school student in the Hopi village of Hotevilla, often
attended the meetings of his village elders, "mesmerized" by
their wisdom and
oratory skills. As the mine went into operation and the elders grasped the
full implications of the deal their tribal council had made, Masayesva says,
they began to oppose the mine. They came from a culture that believed you could
no more own water than you could own the air, but they knew they had to adapt
to Western ways. They sued the mine's owners and Secretary of the Interior
Rogers Morton in 1973, but the lawsuit suffered from their inexperience and
eventually was dismissed on procedural grounds.
Masayesva remembers most about their defeat was "the way the
being treated, ignored and ridiculed throughout that process." It
angry, and the experience profoundly shaped his life.
the mid-1980s, Masayesva joined the Hopi Tribal Council as a
representative to get a closer look at the mine. What he saw convinced him
there was a
chance of throwing out the mine lease and negotiating a new one. But at what
Revenues from the mine today generate more than one-third of the Hopi tribe's
annual general fund, or $7.7 million, and that money paid the salaries of
those who managed many of the tribe's services. Mine revenues make up 25% of
Navajo Nation's general operating fund, or $30 million per year. If
disconnecting from the aquifer caused the mine to shut down, where would that
from? Masayesva says the majority of the council at the time settled for
renegotiating a slightly better price for the water and the coal.
1989 and 1990, Masayesva rose from council representative to vice
chairman and then to chairman, but even from that post he was frustrated. "The
only thing we accomplished during my time on the council was to persuade the
Secretary of the Interior to withhold Black Mesa's permanent [mining] permit,"
Masayesva says. That permanent permit, which by law should be issued within
reasonable time, was placed on "administrative delay." That status
unchanged into the fourth decade of mining.
it turns out, Masayesva's "only" accomplishment would prove
did not campaign for reelection as chairman in 1994 because he felt
tribal government system had been too compromised. "I decided
instead I needed
to work with the grass-roots people who had not been represented, ever,"
Masayesva says. "I decided to put all my energy to fighting the fight
spent several years writing and organizing, and in 1998 he founded
Black Mesa Trust. In alliance with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a
million-member public health and environmental organization, Masayesva immediately
began challenging the water studies that showed "no significant impact" to
Navajo aquifer from Black Mesa's mining. Black Mesa Trust members, only a
handful at that point, began attending, sponsoring and appearing at water summits
and meetings, where they presented their grievances against the mine and
their proposed solutions. They took every opportunity to educate and influence
anyone who would listen, but like all roads on Black Mesa, this one would be
we had come out so negatively against the mining and also took on
our own Hopi government, neither the government agencies or the mine were too
interested in us in the beginning," Masayesva says.
in 2001, Peabody again was forced to apply for the mine's permanent
permit because of terms in the renewal of its coal supply agreement with Edison's
Mohave station. Its application ignored the growing opposition to the
water-based delivery from the mine. In fact, the company asked permission to
coal, using even more water.
timing of their permit application was perfect for us," Masayesva
" That process allowed the opportunity for public comment on the mine plan."
was the opportunity he and Black Mesa Trust had been waiting for.
Black Mesa mine, draglines as tall as four-story buildings cut the
with booms that can reach a football field in length. Exposed seams of coal
skinned clean, drilled and blasted, then hauled in trucks larger than
railcars. Water trucks pass with wide sprays to suppress the dirt and coal
rise into the air. Mine workers communicate by radio from within sealed,
the draglines, large tractors, with drivers guided by topographical
maps, grade the desert to approximate its original shape, practicing Peabody's
own form of interconnectedness. At the request of Navajo living near the mine,
much of the returned land has been reseeded for livestock grazing. To date,
13,000 acres of mined land have been reclaimed and seeded with 120 local plant
species, including many natural herbs for Navajo and Hopi medicines and
goal of Peabody and the Office of Surface Mining—the Department
Interior agency that oversees mining operations—is that, to
the eye, no one will
be able to tell a coal mine existed on Black Mesa after the coal seams are
spent and mining is complete.
course, none of that replaces what the eye can't see—the aquifer
For that Peabody answers with science.
have measured spring flows, spring locations, looked at the places
the Navajo aquifer discharges," says Carla Johnson, CEO of Colorado-based
Waterstone Environmental Hydrology & Engineering Inc. As a Peabody
hydrogeologist has studied the mine's effect on the aquifer since 1985.
" Where the aquifer recharges we have done tree-ring studies to look at
and drought over the years," she says. To say the mine's pumping is the
of surface water problems on Black Mesa are "grains of truth distorted
people who don't know the science."
to her science, the water supply to local Navajo livestock watering
wells is tapped near the surface, typically at 10 feet to 100 feet. The water
at that depth is above and divided from the Navajo aquifer by multiple layers
of impervious silt and sand. Some Navajo springs feed from the same
near-surface water. As for the Hopi springs, Johnson says, they emanate from
of the aquifer outside the area affected by the mine's pumping.
are separate hydrological basins," she says. "In dry periods,
springs simply turn off. In wet periods, they turn on. In general, there is
direct relationship between the level of flow in the springs and the amount
says experts believe the western U.S. is in the middle of a 20-year
drought. Tree-ring studies suggest "that there are cycles of
drought that come
and go on a regular basis. Sometimes they last hundreds of years. Sometimes
they last 20 years."
for the size of the aquifer, "Peabody's pumping in the past
30 years, plus
an additional 30 years, is going to account for less than one-tenth
of 1%" of
the total water stored in the Navajo aquifer, says Peabody's Brian Dunfee,
manager of environmental engineering at the Black Mesa mine.
Masayesva has taken to Western ways in organizing and lobbying, he
not wavered from the deeply spiritual Native American beliefs that have
guided him from the beginning. "The fundamental principle in our science
need to understand is that, as Hopis, we have a sacred covenant with the
person that was here a long time before our ancestors arrived." This person
farmer, a caretaker who, according to Masayesva, gave the tribe permission
use the land—but with a warning. "This person told us it will be
hard to be a
farmer in a waterless world, no forests, no flowing water or lakes. To survive
here you have to have a very strong spiritual life. But if you take care of
this land and use its resources in the best possible way, you will be here
long time. That is a covenant that only the Hopis have of all the Indian tribes."
says that's how the Hopi lived for many hundreds of years until
modern times, when geologists discovered coal beneath their lands.
we turned something sacred, our water, into a commodity that you
this is where our water problems began. This is our knowledge. This is our
science. But they say that this is just an Indian story because we can't measure
that, quantify that, can't put it into your computer."
Navajo science, the images are different but the essence of environmental
interconnectedness is the same. "[Our] earth is female and the
sky is male,"
says Nicole Horseherder, a Navajo from Black Mesa. "They are counterparts
mates that keep everything in balance. From the sky and clouds comes the rain
that is released to the earth that become the streams and pools . . . that
become the groundwater, so the water in different forms comes back to the earth."
a result, she says, "everything that lives on the earth has
health and reproduction. The relationship between the two has been disrupted.
By drawing out so much groundwater you can see the sky and rain clouds
change. It is the relationship of the earth drawing water from the sky and
drawing water back from the earth that creates the harmony."
June of 2001, Horseherder and her cousin Marie Dladue hosted a water
meeting and invited the Black Mesa Trust, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources
Defense Council. As Navajo growing up on Black Mesa, neither had heard or
paid much attention to the mine and the slurry operations. But as adults, they
grew more aware of the issues involved and got angry that their scarce and
sacred water was being taken for industrial use, especially as they hauled
for cooking, cleaning and bathing their children.
by the water meeting, Horseherder and her husband, Marshall Johnson,
attended the 2002 spring session of the Navajo Nation Council in Window Rock,
Ariz., where water rights was a centerpiece topic. With the new Peabody
application, "our great fear was that the Navajo council would just renegotiate
of it without holding hearings and without all our people's approval,"
happened instead was that there was little comment on the Navajo
or the Peabody application in the council session. The water talks instead
focused on matters with the Colorado River and the Little Colorado River Basin.
No one was representing the Navajo side of the water controversies on Black
Mesa as Masayesva was doing for the Hopi. "It opened our eyes to how our
were just letting the situation on Black Mesa happen," Horseherder says.
" They were allowing representatives from groups to get up and talk, and
my husband up there."
Johnson addressed the Navajo Nation Council.
were a couple of things that made a difference when Marshall spoke,"
Horseherder says. "He addressed the council delegates in the
manner, with the traditional etiquette of our people. He spoke to them in Navajo,
very highly respectful thing to do. And he came across with a tone of voice
that was not condescending."
they seemed to listen.
by their reception in Window Rock, and seeing the need for
representation of the Navajo water issues on Black Mesa, Horseherder and Johnson
dedicated themselves to mobilizing the local people. While Peabody built a
$2-million computer model to fulfill its legal obligation to assess the effect
mining on the aquifer, Horseherder and Johnson drew poster boards showing how
an aquifer could be depleted and depressurized. While they met with their
traditional elders and medicine people to ensure they kept balance with the
Navajo's spiritual meaning of water, they drafted a resolution asking current
Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to stop Navajo aquifer pumping and to
non-water-based transportation for Black Mesa coal.
had an opportunity to go to school, and now I have a master's degree
. I am able to research and draft technical documents, but at the same time
am from this area. I can speak the language. I have a heart for this area,"
Horseherder says. "So we carried the wisdom of both worlds with us in
effort. We did the kind of work that a lawyer could do for us, and at the same
we sought the knowledge, the teaching and the prayers our elders told us we
needed in order to tackle this."
and Johnson began "pounding dirt roads for hours at a time," from
one community to another, meeting with groups of 25 to 80 people, traveling
hundreds of miles until they had reached the residents of 11 of the 14 Navajo
chapter houses in and around Black Mesa. (A chapter represents the most local
form of Navajo government, and a resolution from a chapter is the "official
voice of the people of that community," Horseherder says.) The work took
away from their children at night and left them exhausted at the start of each
months of work, Horseherder and Johnson got those 11 chapter houses
oppose Navajo aquifer pumping. They then asked the Navajo Council to adopt
resolution on behalf of the Navajo Nation as a whole. What happened then
we approached Window Rock, they told us to come back next week, then
come back next month, and pretty soon they didn't even have us on
Johnson says. "You hear them talk in Window Rock that people
are the power of
the government. They were trying to [stress] local empowerment. Yet we had
resolution from all the communities directly impacted by Black Mesa mine—and
turned out our government didn't want to hear us."
final call on Navajo aquifer pumping in Arizona will be decided in
federal court and with the California Public Utilities Commission, suggesting
everything is indeed interconnected beyond the Navajo and Hopi worlds.
California Edison's Mohave Generating Station belches 40,000 tons
sulfur dioxide into the air each year, according to the federal Environmental
Protection Agency, making it one of the largest sources of that pollutant in
the West. The white haze that Mohave pushed over the Grand Canyon made it the
target of a late-1990s lawsuit by the Grand Canyon Trust, the Sierra Club and
the National Parks Conservation Assn. A federal consent decree resulting from
the lawsuit required Edison to retrofit Mohave with pollution control
equipment by Dec. 31, 2005—the same date Edison's coal supply agreement
with the Black
Mesa mine expires.
committing an estimated $1.1 billion to retrofit the Mohave plant,
replace the aging slurry pipeline and build a proposed new water transport
pipeline, and considering the growing challenge to the mine operations on Black
Mesa, Edison demanded that Peabody obtain its permanent mining permit as a
condition to starting the retrofit. Edison wanted to make sure that if it made
investment, Mohave's coal supply would be secure for decades. Showing little
concern for the water issues on Black Mesa, Edison also asked for a daily
increase in coal volume and that the coal be "washed" before it is
slurried so that
it would burn cleaner—processes that called for a 34% increase in the
Peabody initiated the permanent permit process, Masayesva began spreading
the word using a thoroughly modern tool—the Internet. Where
applications in the past had received scant notice by the local people, this
to the awareness created by the Black Mesa Trust, the Natural Resources
Defense Council and others, the Office of Surface Mining received 7,000 comments
the permit application in a short time, all objecting to the mine's continued
use of the aquifer. The outcry from the Navajo and Hopi people was so unified
that, at least initially, both Joe Shirley Jr., the elected president of the
Navajo Nation, and Wayne Taylor Jr., the elected chairman of the Hopi tribe,
demanded that Black Mesa mine disconnect from the Navajo aquifer by what now
became everyone's deadline—the end of 2005.
public hearings and little chance of reversing local opinions, Peabody
regrouped. The company later announced its willingness to disconnect Black
Mesa mine from the Navajo aquifer. But there was one catch: It first had to
secure an alternative water source to propel the slurry pipeline.
began work on a new permanent permit application two years ago and
met frequently with Edison, the tribes and involved government and environmental
agencies to find an alternative to the Navajo aquifer.
preferred plan would tap the Coconino aquifer 120 miles east of Black
Mesa, already being used by three power plants and many northern Arizona
communities, including Flagstaff and Winslow. The portion of the aquifer that
affected by that move is 3½ times the size of the Navajo aquifer. A
would have to be built to transport Coconino water to the Black Mesa mine
slurry system, but the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils liked the idea because
pipeline also could deliver water to dry villages along the way.
various parties began working toward a compromise. Edison, which
over all coal transportation responsibilities at the end of 2005, including
procurement of water, would pay $150 million to build the pipeline between
mine and the Coconino aquifer under the proposed plan. The U.S. government
agreed, in principle, to pay to increase pipe capacity to accommodate tribal
But clearly, even if the Coconino aquifer pipeline proved environmentally,
practically and financially acceptable, it would not be agreed upon and built
the 2005 deadline. And if that aquifer could not replace the water from the
Navajo aquifer, Edison and Peabody had no other coal transportation alternative.
Talk soon turned to the possible extension of the 2005 deadline.
President Shirley and Hopi Chairman Taylor were the first to call
a deadline extension that would allow the mine to continue using its
traditional water source—a concession offer that Masayesva, Marshall
Horseherder say was predictable given the tribal governments' long history
cooperation with the mine company. But while they were backpedaling, Horseherder
been persisting with the resolution to the Navajo council. On Friday, July
25, 2003, against the wishes of Shirley, the Navajo Nation Council voted 48-12
to adopt Horseherder's resolution asking the Secretary of the Interior to
intervene and force Peabody off the Navajo aquifer by the 2005 date.
they passed the resolution, I was actually numb," Horseherder
took me a couple of weeks to realize we won, that our biggest goal had been
the Interior Department has the ultimate power to disconnect the
it is unlikely to rule in direct opposition to the Navajo council. "I
the resolution changed everything," Horseherder says. "It meant that
if the mine
continued using the Navajo aquifer, it did so directly against the wishes and
requests of the Navajo tribe."
California Public Utilities Commission has been closely following
showdown at Black Mesa because it eventually will have to approve or deny the
Mohave retrofit plans. Edison has not yet started its retrofit, and nothing
suggests that the commission will allow the generating station to continue
operations beyond the deadline.
light of the issues surrounding the plant, we have concluded it is
probable that Mohave will be shut down at the end of 2005," says
Alan J. Fohrer,
Southern California Edison's chief executive officer. "If it comes back,
most likely be after an extended shutdown sometime [until] 2009, assuming
these issues can be resolved."
the Mohave generating station shuts down, so will the mine that produces
its coal. Despite the apparent and costly victory, Masayesva says he intends
remain vigilant. Horseherder agrees. "I too am now hopeful that use of
Navajo aquifer will stop," she says. "I really have to see Dec. 31,
around. I am skeptical because I know that money can change people's minds
make things happen, and we are not powerful in those means."
the Black Mesa mine's pumping of the Navajo aquifer stops, it will
end of a long quest for Masayesva. It will test his claim that nature, left
alone over time, will return the natural waters to Black Mesa, drought or no
would feel very good [if] the pumps finally shut down," he says. "I
[that] water running even in my sleep. It's driving me crazy, so I am happy
about that. On the other hand, I understand it's going to create adverse economic
addition to the $7.7 million general fund loss, Hopi spokeswoman
Charles says "we would be looking at about 150 tribal employees
jobs, people employed directly by the tribe in various administrative areas,"
not including the 228 Native Americans working at the mine who also would lose
effect of the aquifer victory also may be sending wider ripples through
these traditional cultures. Although Charles claims there's no connection
between the two, the Hopi, facing a revenue crunch and high unemployment, took
advantage of recent changes in Arizona law and reconsidered the possibility
Indian gaming in a special election referendum on May 19. For the second time
10 years, the Hopi voted overwhelmingly against gambling on their reservation—
leaving open the question of how the tribe will replace mine revenue that
presumably will be lost. The Navajo, also struggling with unemployment of about
50%, were considering the same possibility even before the mine closing became
real possibility, according to Navajo spokeswoman Deana Jackson. In the
anticipated referendum, she says, "we believe the Navajo people will vote
affirmative" to bring gaming to their reservation.
for Johnson and Horseherder, the end of mine pumping and the return
natural waters would mean a new beginning. "We want to raise
animals where there
is an abundance of them, as our ancestors did," Johnson says. "Without
for them too, it isn't easy.
on the issues of Black Mesa have taken a huge toll on our family.
have to understand we have no money to pay anyone to do anything for us when
we meet these agencies and corporations," Horseherder says. "We don't
money to pay ourselves. We have long gone through our savings. But when you
small children looking up at you, you have to imagine and envision what life
is going to be for them in 20 years and 50 years, even when you are not here
anymore. You have to imagine what you are going to leave for them. Are our
people still going to be able to live here, speaking and carrying on this way
life that we cherish?"
printed in the Los Angeles Times, June 6 2004, at http://www.latimes.com/features/printedition/magazine/la-tm-navajo23jun06.story
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