Water is life for the Navajo Nation


Growing up on Black Mesa in northeast Arizona on the Navajo Nation, we often lived like nomads, following our sheep. As a child, I wasn’t aware that other people in America stayed put, living in one place. Whenever I returned home from boarding school during a break, I’d often find my family living somewhere new on the mesa.

I have distinct memories of one particular camp, Tsenitaahotsoh, which in Navajo means “the green grass at the base of the rock.” I would get up before sunrise and take our sheep to a seep there to drink, because right around 4 a.m., pools of water would miraculously appear on the dry arroyo bed. Then when the sun came up a few hours later, the seeps would disappear.

Our livelihoods depended on those springs, and I remember moving with our herds to follow the water all the way through my high school years, until I left for college in 1987.

I returned home 10 years later, university degree in hand, ready to take my place as a productive member of my community. But as I began building my home at Tsenitaahotsoh, I discovered that the seeps had vanished, not just with the rising sun each day, but for good. In fact, the springs at all of the camps from my childhood were drying up. Over 20 years, the natural economy of my ancestors had disappeared.

The Navajo Aquifer is the only source of drinking water for 50,000 native people and 14 communities on Black Mesa. Navajo and Hopi people who live on the plateau have relied on the aquifer for generations. It is over a thousand feet deep, and it provides some of the cleanest water in the Southwest when it emerges as seeps on the surface.

What has happened to this precious resource that sustained so many hardworking locals for so long, allowing them to make their living in a challenging landscape? The answer isn’t hard to find on Black Mesa; it is the 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station near Grand Canyon National Park. Decades ago, when the $5 billion Central Arizona Project needed power to push Colorado River water uphill over 300 miles of canals from western Arizona to Phoenix and Tucson, the U.S. government approached the Navajo Nation. What would we get in return? A coal-fired power plant on the reservation if the tribe waived its rights to the Upper Basin Colorado River for 50 years.

My community on Black Mesa would strip mine and sell the coal, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation would receive cheap “Indian” energy to subsidize its operation of one of the largest, and costliest, publicly funded water works and energy projects in U.S. history. Central and southern Arizona benefitted most from the low-cost electricity and the subsidized water; meanwhile, the aquifer suffered. From 1971-2005, the coal industry removed water from the Navajo Aquifer at the rate of 4,000 to 6,000 acre-feet a year, over three times the aquifer’s known ability to recharge. Since 2005, the Peabody mining company has decreased its use to under 2,000 acre-feet a year, but that is still over 13 million gallons a year for an area that gets less than 8 inches of annual rainfall.

The name “Navajo Generating Station” gives the impression that Navajos own the plant. That’s not true. The largest share belongs to the U.S. government. The Navajo Nation receives some revenue and jobs from the coal operations, but at a heavy price. Air pollution from the plant hurts public health, and the mining and coal-ash waste disposal damage water quality.

Some four decades ago, the decision was made at a crossroads in Arizona history to build a coal plant to power the Central Arizona Project canal pumps. Now we are at another crossroads: Leases for coal operations are up soon, and the Navajo Generating Station faces huge costs to deal with pollution and update an outdated facility.

Today, we can chart a new path. We know the devastation to our water that comes with coal. Today, we have the technology to harness our region’s stunning solar resources instead. That’s enough energy to power the canal pumps, and more.

Having had the privilege of seeing the land as the Creator left it for us, I know that the wise management of the basic elements of life -- land, air, water and the sun -- is necessary if we are to fulfill our responsibility to ensure a decent quality of life for the next generation. It’s time for the U.S. government to divest from the Navajo Generating Station and start building commercial-scale renewable energy projects on Navajo land. Prosperity for some should no longer come from draining the livelihoods of others.

Nicole Horseherder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is an administrator at Piñon Unified School District and an advisor to the Navajo Nation Water Rights Task Force.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.