Black Mesa is among the most remote and traditional communities on the vast Navajo Nation. Located near the Navajo border with the Hopi reservation in northeastern Arizona, the area is home to indigenous people who for generations have farmed, raised livestock and relied on water that flows perennially from seeps and springs. But recently, life has gotten harder on Black Mesa. Residents blame decades of groundwater withdrawals by Peabody Coal – and they say the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012 that’s wending its way through Congress as Senate Bill 2109 will compound their troubles.
Nicole Horseherder is a lifelong resident of the Black Mesa area, just south of Peabody Coal Company’s highest-profile mine, called the Kayenta Mine. She’s proud of her home.
“We love our pastoral lifestyle, and we love raising sheep and cattle,” she said. “We’re horse people. Nowhere on the Navajo Nation have I seen women so proud to be harvesting and processing their weaving materials. The way I would describe the people is they love what they do. They love their lives.”
Horseherder and other Black Mesa residents numbered among repeat attendees at a series of public forums about the settlement that Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly convened in April. Horseherder is angry about the settlement, because she feels it places an unfair burden on Black Mesa residents.
The N-aquifer is the groundwater source on which Black Mesa residents depend. It’s also the aquifer from which Peabody Coal has pumped millions upon millions of gallons of water to transport coal in a pipeline from Black Mesa to the Navajo Generating Station in Nevada. For Horseherder, SB 2109’s biggest red flags are provisions that require the Navajo Nation to renew a lease for the Navajo Generating Station and restrict the tribes from suing over damage to the N-aquifer, including changes to salinity and the increased concentration of other naturally occurring constituents.
Horseherder and other tribal and environmental activists have fought Peabody over the aquifer for years; most recently they’ve appealed the federal Office of Surface Mining’s 2011 decision to renew Peabody’s permit to operate the 40,000-acre Kayenta Mine. As part of that battle, the mine opponents have commissioned new research to enhance what she says is a growing body of evidence that past mining operations have damaged the aquifer.
“This study is exactly about this issue, about increased salinity, and increased natural constituents to the water,” she said. “This is the exact thing that we are contesting. This is the exact thing that hydrologists say occurs where overdraft occurs. What the settlement is trying to do is remove our ability to protect our own source of water. That’s the gist of it. We will have no recourse.”
Navajo Hydrologist: No Significant Damage
Jason John, principal hydrologist with the Navajo Nation Water Resource Department, said he understands that Black Mesa residents have long held concerns about Peabody’s use of water. He believes some of it stems from a pervasive feeling of unfairness: “They see this company that has eight or nine wells pumping thousands of gallons every day for an industrial operation, and here they are having to haul water for their daily lives.”
He said his department has done its best to advocate on behalf of Black Mesa residents by visiting when concerns are raised and engaging in a consistent monitoring program, alongside the U.S. Geological Survey and to some extent the federal Office of Surface Mining, for 40 years.
“If you look at the history of that area,” John said, “it’s easy to come to the conclusion that this N-aquifer is one of the most heavily studied aquifers in the Southwest.”
He said annual measures of water table levels have shown a drop of anywhere between 200 to 400 feet, depending on location.
“There’s an impact, but is that impact cause for alarm? To a large extent the scientific community says no; it has not caused damage to the aquifer system,” he said.
John added that several of Peabody’s wells have perforated an overlying aquifer with poorer water quality, and that’s led to higher salinity and the increased concentration of other natural constituents in some samples – but it’s not a direct result of groundwater withdrawals. Overall, he said, four decades of studies have failed to demonstrate actionable damage from Peabody’s pumping.
Asked why it was even necessary, then, to include language in the settlement that appears to protect Peabody, John conceded its presence in the settlement is problematic.
“It’s one of those weird things where someone is saying [a lawsuit] would never happen, but I want you to say it anyway,” he said. “It makes them feel comfortable, but then it raises questions on the other side. It’s just one of those things that got put in there that we didn’t feel was necessary, but they felt like it was.”
John points out that Peabody was once pumping 4,500 acre-feet of water each year, but the company has requested only 1,200 acre-feet a year for its future operations; that’s equivalent to annual withdrawals by the nearby community of Tuba City.
And he says there’s a huge boon to Peabody’s neighbors that’s also included in the settlement: the Many Mules Project, which will create a water system to deliver 300 acre-feet of water a year to areas adjacent to Peabody’s lease. And just as there are citizens groups opposing SB 2109 and the settlement, there are other citizens groups pushing for the water projects it will authorize, he said.
For his part, John hopes the settlement goes through.
“One thing people need to think about is … if we don’t have a water rights settlement, and we don’t have agreements to manage the N-aquifer between both tribes, we might end up in court, fighting each other over the water resources,” he said, referring to the Navajo and Hopi people.
“At that point, the mining issue may take a back seat to the political issues and land and cultural issues between both tribes. I would hate to see the two tribes fight one another in a court for everyone to see. Are people thinking that water rights issues are going to be solved easily in court between these two tribes? I don’t think so.“
With Her Own Eyes
Horseherder maintains that the lifestyle she grew up with on Black Mesa relies on a healthy aquifer – and despite John’s reports, she has her own beliefs about Peabody’s pumping.
“What we’ve been relying on all these years are free-flowing natural springs, natural seeps and places where … the water will come right out of a break in the face of the rock,” she said. She added that generations of people have built cisterns to collect spring water, and cleaned out areas around springs so pools can form.
“People would carry their jugs to these places,” she said. “Springs dotted Black Mesa like you wouldn’t believe. People have known since the beginning of time living here which springs produce the best water.”
But all over Black Mesa, people have been noticing springs that don’t produce any more, Horseherder said. “The elders will say, ‘10 years ago was the last time I saw water there.’”
Horseherder recognizes that any settlement meant to clarify water claims will have pros and cons, but laments that “the people who have to shoulder the cons are people of Black Mesa again. It’s coal that’s dug from Black Mesa to provide the power that’s needed to deliver Phoenix and Vegas’ water supply. Once more, we’re giving a corporation another break for free. Basically, they’re being told there’s already evidence to the damage that’s occurred – but they’re off the hook.”
Meanwhile, she says for the people of Black Mesa, the beleaguered springs make it harder to carry on the practices and traditional lifeways that people on Black Mesa are known for. And the people of Black Mesa are worried.
“They understand the connection between the environment and their ability to sustain what they’re doing today. If the water cycle is out of balance as it is now, they know the thing that’s going to be affected first and foremost is their livelihood,” she said. “The vegetation is suffering, which causes the animals to suffer, which causes the people to suffer. If the water table is low, you’re digging a foot into the ground to plant your seeds, and it’s dry. How in the world are you going to sustain yourself if you can’t plant your food?”
Hopi Chairman Quietly Supportive
LeRoy Shingoitewa, the Hopi tribal chairman who has largely stayed out of the press on the issue of SB 2109, says he supports it – at this stage. His tribal members also stand to gain water delivery projects for villages that lack clean water.
“We looked at a lot of things to try to make sure that Hopi would benefit,” he said. “We worked very hard to make this happen.”
He said he’s been clear with senators Jon Kyl and John McCain, the bill’s sponsors, that his tribe reserves the right to object if provisions appear in the final version that are unfavorable to the tribe. Meanwhile, he’s engaged in process to educate his people about the settlement that parallels the one underway on the Navajo Nation.
“We’re still talking to our people, explaining to our people what the agreement is. We’re continuing to have discussions with our villages,” he said. “As a tribal leader, my feeling is what we can bring to the Hopis for the future so our children will be able to survive? Many of our homes still do not have running water or indoor plumbing.”
As for Black Mesa, the Hopis retain some mineral rights but no surface rights in the area – so its fate is out of Hopi hands, he said.