Beautiful Spring Speaks: A Resolution to Save the Navajo Aquifer

In June 2001, a crucial meeting was held on Big Mountain, Black Mesa, Arizona. Grassroots Diné (also known as Navajo) and Hopi organizations, national environmental groups, ordinary people and politicians came together and shared the message “Water Is Life” (see article in Cultural Survival Voices, Fall 2001). There has since been increasing pressure to save the N-aquifer, the region’s only source of drinking water, from continued pumping and drawdown by Peabody Coal Company, which uses it to transport coal 273 miles via a slurry line to the Mohave Generating Plant in Laughlin, Nevada.

The effectiveness of these efforts can be measured by several important developments:


  • Peabody Coal now publicly supports finding an alternative to using N-aquifer water;

  • Hopi Chairman Wayne Taylor, Jr. has stated that “the Hopi Tribe is committed to stopping the use of N-aquifer water for slurrying coal and is working with Peabody and the Mohave plant owners as well as with the United States to do so. The Tribe is also opposed to Peabody's request to a life of mine permit, and is preparing comments to submit to the Office of Surface Mining.” (Office of Public Relations, The Hopi Tribe, May 1, 2002, "Tutuveni");

  • Following the receipt last April by the Denver Office of Surface Mining (OSM) of more than 6,000 emails and faxes, Peabody Coal's application to expand mining on its J-23 lease area and increase N-aquifer pumping from 4,400 acre/feet to 5,700 acre/feet per year was put on hold; and

  • A decision is pending about whether $1.2 billion will be spent to install scrubbers to control coal-burning air pollution from the Mohave Generating Station, with the alternative of shutting it down by 2005. “The Mohave Generating Station, owned by Southern California Edison, the city of Los Angeles and Arizona's Salt River Project, is facing a March deadline to begin design and purchase of air pollution- control devices required to settle a lawsuit filed by Grand Canyon Trust. The owners of the plant have petitioned California utility regulators for permission to charge ratepayers for the pollution-control system or to shut the plant down,” reports the Arizona Sun.

Environmental and indigenous activists are hopeful that the Mohave plant will indeed either be cleaned up or shut down. Andy Bessler, Environmental Justice Organizer with the Sierra Club in Flagstaff, writes in an email: "Southern Cal Edison, primary owner of Mohave, is faced with this decision and is looking for a scapegoat in this decision. They have asked the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC) to help them with an increase in ratepayers to help pay for the pollution controls and if they don't get it, they would shut down Mohave. The Sierra Club and other enviros [environmental groups] forced the Mohave owners to place pollution controls on Mohave by 2005. In the timeline we have with them, it appears that they are not hiring contractors in the timeline they agreed to. We are anticipating that Mohave will shut down, temporarily if not permanently. Perhaps they will switch to natural gas - it's hard to tell." And Diné activist Nicole Horseherder has written confidently, “The California Public Utility Commission will direct Southern California Edison to pay for scubbers.”

Nevertheless, and despite all these mixed but somewhat encouraging developments, pumping continues from the N-aquifer at the rate of 3.3 million gallons per day - more than one billion gallons annually. The effects of this heavy use are becoming steadily more obvious. Nicole Horseherder reported in an email on March 4, 2003 that “evidence of possible collapse of portions of the aquifer is seen in sinkholes and fissures at the north end of Black Mesa near the Peabody Kayenta Mine all the way to Highway 264. Signs of subsidence can be seen along both the Dinnebito Wash and Oraibi Wash. Areas reclaimed by Peabody Coal are also showing similar features. Holes are showing up and reseeded areas are gray.”

Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva, now head of the non-profit Black Mesa Trust, wrote in the Arizona Republic on January 2, 2003, “Most recently, Navajos have reported sightings of sinkholes around Forest Lake, adjacent to the world's largest strip mining complex. This discovery supports a report by a Navajo hydrologist concerning 'clouding' and 'sanding' problems in some of Peabody's deep wells. According to the hydrologist, this is an early indication of the Navajo Aquifer beginning to collapse. The report was made in 1984."

To Nizhoni - "Beautiful Spring"

South of the mine area in the To Nizhoni Valley is a spring called To Nizhoni, or "Beautiful Spring". This spring is one of the sacred sites where offerings and prayers take place. Sites such as this serve as the inspiration for the Diné organization To Nizhoni Ani - "Beautiful Spring Speaks" - co-founded by Black Mesa residents Nicole Horseherder of Big Mountain and her husband Marshall Johnson of Forest Lake. Johnson sums up the crisis To Nizhoni Ani was founded to face: "Peabody's pumping has destroyed our sacred sites and springs and this is a violation of our freedom of worship and right to live."

In recent years, several sources of water other than the N-aquifer have been or are being considered for use in moving coal through the slurry line, but none are close to reality. A longstanding proposal to draw water from Lake Powell and the Little Colorado River has bogged down in complicated lawsuits. A rider proposed by Senator Jon Kyl (Republican of Arizona) in November 2002 to a bill that would have allowed water to be pumped for the slurry line from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon area was withdrawn after outcries from many environmental groups, including the Grand Canyon Trust.

The latest focus is on using the C-aquifer (Coconino). This vast aquifer underlies the southern part of the Colorado Plateau, including Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, and non-Indian lands. Water from the C-aquifer is potable for several areas, including Flagstaff and Show Low, Arizona. Concern has been expressed that pumping from it could cause the overlying N-aquifer to collapse. According to a Navajo Nation hydrologist, this concern is misplaced: "Pumping from the C-Aquifer west of Winslow won't cause the N-Aquifer to collapse because the Navajo Sandstone and Wingate Sandstone don't exist in the area of the proposed well field (see U.S. Geological Survey Profession Paper 521-A).”

A public meeting of the Navajo Water Rights Commission, held on March 12 in Piñon, Arizona, presented and discussed some of these issues. At this first public meeting, which was well-attended by Diné from throughout the Black Mesa region, including from Leupp, where the proposed C-aquifer drilling would occur, I was told that the unequivocal position of the majority of the people attending was that water should not be used to transport coal, that Navajo Nation water rights should no longer be made available for Peabody Coal, and that the promise of 250 or so jobs (in Leupp) was meaningless when measured against the preciousness and scarcity of water. The prevailing sentiment was clearly that the use of water to transport fossil fuels was immoral.

The Aquifers

The four aquifers beneath Black Mesa are:

  • Torivo (T-aquifer), closest to the surface, around 300-400 feet deep, used primarily for livestock water.

  • Dakota (D-aquifer), around 500-800 feet below the surface, also used primarily for livestock.

  • Navajo (N-aquifer), around 2,500-3,000 feet deep and the only source of drinking water for the Black Mesa region, including all of Black Mesa, the Hopi Tribe, and municipalities such as Moenkopi, Tuba City, and Kayenta. The N-aquifer is the region's only drinking water supply, past, present, and to my knowledge, future as well. Peabody's pumping volume is about 4,200 acre/feet per year; municipal use is about 3,800 acre/feet annually.

  • Coconino (C-aquifer), at 4,000 feet down, is the deepest and largest overall (containing about seven million acre/feet of water).

Each of these aquifers is separated from the one above by confining land layers. The part of the Coconino aquifer currently being considered for use by the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, and Peabody Coal in lieu of the N-aquifer is located on the north side of Highway I-40 and west of the town of Winslow, near the Diné community of Leupp. The C-aquifer at this location is about 1,000 feet deep. What would be tapped into for the slurry line is in an unconfined part of the aquifer.

The problem with all of these "alternatives" is that they all propose using for industrial purposes large amounts of water, a very limited and precious resource. It is the view of the members of To Nizhoni Ani – a view shared by members of many other organizations, including Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land -- that NO water should be used to transport coal in this arid and often drought-stricken land. In this region where rainfall averages as little as seven inches per year, these concerned individuals argue, no water can be spared to transport fossil fuels.

To Nizhoni Ani has submitted a resolution to the Navajo Nation Council, which is now in the Resources Committee awaiting action. In an email on February 28, 2003, Nicole Horseherder wrote: “The water issue is at a crawl right now. After numerous attempts to negotiate the resolution in the Navajo Nation Council and with the Resources Committee, the Council gave the Resources Committee a directive to go out and meet with the residents of Black Mesa and come to an agreement. Since the directive was given on December 30, 2002, no meeting has been scheduled and it is already three months later. The purpose was to meet with and hear the concerns of the people and environmental impacts. The new resolution is still waiting for the Resource Committee meeting out here.”

The resolution is titled "Resolution Approving And Recommending The Submission Of A Petition To The Secretary of Interior To End The Pumping Of The Navajo Aquifer By Peabody Western Coal Company (PWCC) And To Obtain An Alternative Source Of Non-Water Based Transportation For The Coal Mining And Pipeline Operation No Later Than 2005".

In four pages it outlines and documents the cultural, religious, and secular political history of the slurry line use of N-aquifer water. It lists 18 organizations, including nine Navajo Nation Chapters, Diné and Hopi grassroots organizations, and national environmental organizations that "support the end of Peabody pumping from the N-Aquifer." To this list has been added Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, which sent a letter of support on January 29, 2003:

"Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land calls for and supports the end of Peabody Coal pumping water from the N-Aquifer, the sooner the better. While coal is still being mined, we urge the substitution of a nonwater source - such as railroad, conveyor belt, or truck transport - to move any coal mined from the Peabody Black Mesa mine lease area.

“At the same time, we urge that all parties concerned explore and seek to develop other sources of renewable energy, such as solar, which should eventually be used to replace the burning of fossil fuels to generate electrical power."

Carol Snyder Halberstadt is Coordinator of Black Mesa Weavers for Life and Land, a Cultural Survival Special Project.

Relevant organizations: Sierra Club and Black Mesa Trust.

Related Articles and Documents

Sierra Club Press Release: “Grassroots Hopi and Navajo take case for economic and environmental justice to California's Public Utilities Commission”
March 31, 2003

Statement by Traditional Dine Elder Kee Watchman of Cactus-Valley/Red Willow Springs Sovereign Community of Big Mountain, Arizona, at the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights

“Navajos speak out against uranium mining”
By Christina MacPherson
Uranium News

“Student Research on the N-Aquifer”
Northern Arizona University’s Center for Sustainable Environments
Projects and Focus on Water Issues
By David Seibert, NAU/CSE Ethnoecology Lab

“'Fuzzy science' is crippling the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni”
By Vernon Masayesva
Arizona Republic
January 2, 2003

“Navajo President: Pipeline Crucial To Mine's Future”
Associated Press

“Mr. Peabody's Coal Train Done Hauled It Away” By Martha E. Ture