The Fight Over the Water Beneath Black Mesa

By Kathy Helms

WINDOW ROCK, Arizona, April 17, 2006 (ENS) - The C Aquifer for Diné, a grassroots group opposing use of the Coconino Aquifer's water to slurry coal from Black Mesa Mine, is in Window Rock for the Navajo Nation Council Spring Session armed with a petition "to stop the Navajo water grab." The Spring Session opens today.

C Aquifer for Diné President Calvin Johnson, Vice President Laura Chee, and adviser Anna Marie Frazier, said Navajos from throughout the western and central portions of the reservation came together April 3 at Leupp Chapter House and expressed total opposition to recently disclosed plans to pump and pipe Navajo groundwater from the C-Aquifer for industrial use associated with Peabody Western Coal Co.'s Black Mesa Mine.

black mesa

Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona is home to the Hopi and Navajo people. These high plateaus are a semi-desert environment, receiving between seven and 12 inches of rain a year. (Photo courtesy Black Mesa Water Coalition )
Peabody Western is part of the world's largest coal company, Peabody Energy, and the aquifer at issue serves as a primary source of drinking water for the area’s Hopi and Navajo residents.

The grassroots group, dedicated to preservation and protection of the C-aquifer, said Navajo residents from Leupp and neighboring communities organized under the umbrella of Diné Care. The new organization received the support of To Nizhoni Ani, another Navajo grassroots group defending the use of the Navajo Aquifer on Black Mesa.

"Together, these organizations and communities will converge on Window Rock for the Spring Session of the Navajo Nation Council, which is expected to consider the recent plans to dewater the C-Aquifer for coal transportation purposes," said Frazier.

"The united citizen army of Navajoland will also take Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley to task for his lead role in developing these plans and agreeing to drop a tribal lawsuit against Peabody for short-changing the tribe in coal royalties by $600 million," she said.

The Leupp Chapter and other local self-governing communities in the Western Navajo Agency have passed resolutions in recent years opposing the planned depletion of the C-Aquifer, "and, in fact, have had several meetings with President Shirley to address these critical concerns. Yet, Dr. Shirley has proceeded ahead with the secret negotiations and planning," the group said.

The group said the C-Aquifer plans were the result of years of secret negotiations conducted behind closed doors by Southern California Edison, Peabody, Salt River Project, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe.

The Department of Interior facilitated the private mediation sessions in which affected Navajo communities were not even invited to the table, they said.

protest

The water struggle has been going on for years. Here, Forest Lake resident Wahleah Johns, a member of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, protests Peabody Coal's water usage in Window Rock during the opening day of the Navajo Nation Council's 2005 Summer Session. (Photo by Jeremy Schneider courtesy Gallup Independent)
But it's not just the Diné who have begun to question the high-level negotiations between the power companies and the tribes.

Former Hopi Vice Chairman Caleb Johnson said a recent issue of the Hopi newspaper "Tututveni" reported on a draft of the coal and water lease agreements which Hopi Tribal Chairman Ivan Sidney was negotiating with Mohave stakeholders.

"Apparently, it was not to be released, but fortunately someone got a copy of it," Johnson said.

One item of major importance to the Hopi Tribe, according to Johnson, was an agreement by the Hopi and Navajo tribes "to drop existing lawsuits and waive all possible past, present and future legal claims for damage to groundwater."

"If this is the case, I would say that this was a critical mistake" by Chairman Sidney and President Shirley, said Johnson.

"Peabody Coal has always been most interested in this for two reasons," he said. "A lawsuit was filed by the Navajo Tribe against Peabody about 10 years ago. The Hopi Tribe, later on, joined in this lawsuit. Should the tribes be successful, this would bring to the tribes $600 million.

"Then there is another lawsuit, the RICO case, which would bring in three times that amount. According to the article, the agreement states that these cases will be dismissed with prejudice when Mohave returns to service. What this means is that these lawsuits will never be put in court again," Johnson said.

"My impression after the recent election of the Hopi chairman was that this negotiating effort to reopen Mohave power plant had been terminated with Mr. Wayne Taylor's defeat.

"In addition, my impression was that the Hopi people were in complete agreement with the goal of the Black Mesa Trust to close the Mohave power plant for good in order to save the water for our home use," Johnson said.

"In my opinion, the chairman of the Hopi Tribe and the president of the Navajo Tribe have made a critical mistake. I challenge both of them to visit every Hopi village and Navajo chapter and level with the common people on this issue.

"When Mr. Sidney was elected, he made a commitment to the people that he would keep them informed. As to this date, he has not kept this promise," Johnson said.

coal

Peabody's Black Mesa coal facility on Navajo Nation land pulverizes coal, mixes it with water, then sends it through the only coal slurry pipeline in the United States to a coal-burning power plant in Nevada. (Photo courtesy EPA)
"In addition, the president of the Navajo Nation is up for re-election and I would suggest that he also level with his people. These elected leaders can no longer hide behind the door of confidentiality. The draft is out and there is no good news in it for the two tribes," he said.

Leaders of the Hopi and Navajo nations will be presented this week with the findings of a new scientific report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that predicts grave consequences for a structurally related aquifer, the N-Aquifer, if the Peabody water draw down is allowed to proceed.

The NRDC report concludes that Peabody has already exceeded legal limits established to protect Hopi and Navajo water supplies, and found that years of industrial pumping has already caused material damage to the vital resource.

"The new evidence confirms what the Hopi and Navajo have suspected for years - that Peabody is draining their main source of drinking water at a rate that cannot be sustained. Now the company wants a bigger straw to finish off the job," said Timothy Grabiel, an author of the NRDC report. "Based on this evidence, there's simply no way to justify letting them have it."

Officials from Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, part of the U.S. Department of Interior, have said they have seen no signs that Peabody is harming the aquifer.

But using the government's own data, NRDC found as early as 2000 that seven of nine monitored springs show a decline in excess of 10 percent and more than a third of monitored wells had fallen below the water level needed to guarantee against collapse or contamination of the underground reservoir.

"The NRDC report raises serious red flags that Peabody's activities are harming the Navajo Aquifer and, therefore, our way of life," said Enei Begaye, an activist fighting to protect tribal resources. "Our leaders must take a hard look at this new evidence."

drinking

Drinking water supplies are critically important in dry northeastern Arizona. (Photo courtesy U. Arizona)
The Navajo Aquifer annually supplies approximately 4,500 acre-feet of water used to convey coal to the Mohave power plant in addition to about 3,000 acre-feet for community use.

Peabody uses the water to produce a slurry made of water and pulverized coal and pumps the slurry across 273 miles of desert to the Southern California Edison Company's Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada.

Although pumping stopped when the plant was shut late last year under a consent decree involving air emissions, Peabody wants to extend its permit to operate the mine, anticipating that the power plant may be retrofitted, and come back online.

In Peabody's view, continued operation of the Mohave Generating Station is in the public interest, because it provides low-cost electricity, hundreds of jobs and a stable revenue source for the Hopi and Navajo nations.

Peabody Energy says on its website that, "The tribes and Mohave stakeholders have come together to support development of the Coconino Aquifer, the largest water source in the Lower Colorado River Basin, which spans more than 27,000 square miles in Arizona."

"The parties are engaged in intensive discussions to make the new water source a reality," says Peabody.

The plan would provide water to transport coal and "could also potentially help build tribal water infrastructure," the company says.

The Coconino Aquifer is three times the size of the Navajo Aquifer. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is conducting a study of the C-Aquifer that includes geophysical studies, aquifer testing and aquifer modeling to determine whether or not the aquifer will be protected with this additional proposed use. The study is expected to be released later this year.

{Published in cooperation with the Gallup Independent.}