MOENKOPI, Ariz. - Hubert Lewis recalls hot summer days when he and other children of this Hopi village would get relief from the cool water in Moenkopi Wash.
Moenkopi - which in Hopi means "a place
where water flows' - sits right above one of the few waterways that
traverse the arid reservation in northeastern
But today, the 55-year-old Lewis is one
of many tribal members who wonder where the water has gone.
Moenkopi Wash dries up during the summer, and the winter flow is
not what it used to be, they say.
"That wash used
to always be running, and there was a good volume of water," says
Lewis, who is now governor of Upper Moenkopi Village. "The village
is very concerned because there isn't that much water being stored
in our irrigation system anymore, and several of our springs have
Springs in other areas - some used by
the Hopis for religious ceremonies for hundreds of years - are also
in decline. Navajos living in the Black Mesa area make the same
When asked what causes this problem,
Hopis agree: Peabody Western Coal Co." s mining operation on Black
Mesa. Although it is 50 miles north of their villages, Hopis
believe the mining depletes the water upon which their
10,000-member tribe depends.
coal company uses about 1 billion gallons of groundwater annually
to slurry pulverized coal 273 miles from Black Mesa to the Mohave
Generating Station in Laughlin, Nev. The power plant is owned by
four utilities which mainly serve customers in Southern California
and the Las Vegas area.
For years, the Hopis have
called upon the federal government to exercise its trust
responsibility and halt the pumping. They may have made enough
noise to be heard.
Peabody recently announced it
is considering building a 90-mile pipeline with the Navajo Tribe to
transport water from Lake Powell to the Black Mesa Mine and nearby
Navajo communities. The announcement marks a major shift from
Peabody's previous position that such a pipeline would be both
unnecessary and too expensive.
that there is no long-term impact (on the aquifer), but that
doesn't make the issue go away for the Hopis," says Irene Crawford,
an attorney with Peabody. "We have a business relationship with
these people and we want to work this out."
Peabody's shift comes as Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt gets ready to decide whether to issue a permanent
permit for the Black Mesa Mine, which has operated under an interim
permit since the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977
went into effect.
The Hopis last summer asked
Babbitt to deny the permit unless the company stops using
groundwater and looks for an alternative water source. They expect
Babbitt, an Arizona native, to issue his decision soon, although an
Interior Department spokesman says no deadline has been
The Hopis also asked Babbitt to push for the
Lake Powell pipeline, which, according to Hopi consultants, would
increase ratepayers' monthly electric bills between 1 cent and 6
cents if Peabody passed on the cost of
Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku
welcomes Peabody's unexpected decision to consider the pipeline.
The company's decision is a "productive step towards solving one of
the greatest problems facing both tribes," Secakuku says.
Discussions between the two tribes, Peabody and the Department of
Interior should begin immediately, he says.
right to pump water is included in the coal leases Peabody signed
with the Navajo and Hopi tribes in the mid-1960s, but Hopi
officials say they were never fully informed of the slurry line's
impact on water.
Over the past decade, the U.S.
government, Peabody and the tribes have spent hundreds of thousands
of dollars on lawyers and experts in an effort to determine whether
the coal company is indeed depleting the Navajo Sandstone
Peabody maintains that the slurry
operation will barely affect the aquifer, which holds pristine
water dating back to the ice age more than 16,000 years ago.
According to Crawford, the slurry will use only one-tenth of 1
percent of the water stored over its life.
independent study, paid for by Peabody and the Navajo and Hopi
tribes, reaffirmed previous reports which determined the impact
would be relatively small.
But the Hopi Tribe
points to a memo written last October by the U.S. Geological
Survey's Office of Ground Water which acknowledged that a computer
model USGS used to simulate the impact - and which previous studies
were based on - is "highly uncertain."
model is not well suited to address concerns about adverse effects
on individual washes and springs," wrote William Alley, chief of
The USGS admission was alarming, says
Ron Morgan, hydrologist for the Hopi Tribe.
Hopi Tribe does not wish for the coal mining to cease, because 80
percent of the tribal government revenue comes from the mine,"
Morgan says. "They would be happy to see the model demonstrate that
there is no impact, but also that there is no uncertainty."
But most of all, Morgan adds, they would like to
see Peabody pull out of the aquifer for good.
free-lances out of Flagstaff,