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Gathering Clouds

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 Impending Victory, a Sobering Question: Now What?

June 06, 2004|Sean Patrick Reily | Writer Sean Patrick Reily is the director of editorial business and planning for The Times.

"Somewhere 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 Horseherder, Navajo, Black Mesa


For years upon years beneath star-heavy skies, the Navajo awakened before the 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 by 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.

But that was when there was water on Black Mesa.

Today, 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 they 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 West 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 own tribal governments that have allowed that water use.

Tapping 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 as a 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 draws 3.3 million gallons of water from below Black Mesa.

Peabody, 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 has 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.

But "that 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 the 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, we know everything is interconnected. Everything is universally together, each part to make the other work."

Since 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 Western 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, through their combination of new politics and "Indian science," they have Peabody wondering if everything is, indeed, interconnected.

Black Mesa is a hand-shaped landmass that covers 5,400 square miles near the 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 pinon, and ultimately rock and boulders. It's bone-dry desert land, 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 in 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 desert springs.

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