Water supply on Hopi endangered, says report
PHOENIX—The principal source of drinking water for the Hopi Indian tribe and many members of the Navajo Nation on the Black Mesa Plateau is exhibiting symptoms of decline and indications of damage, says a new environmental report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Peabody Coal Company, by far the largest user of the N-Aquifer, is drawing down water at a rate of over one billion gallons annually to help transport coal to power cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.
NRDC’s report, Drawdown Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa, is based on data and documents obtained by the U.S. government. Drawdown concludes that Peabody’s use of drinking water to slurry (transport) coal from Black Mesa to a Nevada power plant is taking water from the Navajo aquifer faster than can be replenished. by comparing data generated in the field to government standards set up specifically to protect the aquifer. Drawdown reveals that at least one of the government’s protective standards, called material damage criteria, has been exceeded and other “red flags” are being discounted by government agencies.
“The annual use of over one billion gallons of pure drinking water to slurry coal in one of the most arid places in the United States simply cannot be defended, especially when warning signs abound that the aquifer system is being overstressed,” said David Beckman, NRDC senior attorney, project director and one of the report’s authors. “The time has come to phase out Peabody’s use of the aquifer and stop gambling with the region’s only reliable source of drinking water.”
Vernon Masayesva, former chairman of the Hopi Tribe, and current executive director of the Black Mesa Trust, commented that the “Trust endorses NRDC’s recommendations and believes that strong action to address Peabody’s pumping and protect the N-aquifer is long overdue. I does not surprise us that the data show what many Hopi have long believed: you cannot pump billions of gallons of water every year in a desert without serious consequences.”
Peabody Coal Company has been mining coal on the reservations since the 1960s, following exploration agreements with the Hopi and Navajo Nations.
Under the agreements, the Native American tribes receive royalties for coal that is extracted. Peabody draws on the N-Aquifer to produce coal slurry, a pulverized coal and water combination that is transported 270 miles to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada, which in turn provides power for a number of projects, including the cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas.
But from the beginning, there were concerns about the damage brought about by the massive water pumping (on average, 3 million gallons a day) from the aquifer. The Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) was charged by Congress to regulate surface mining operations on Indian lands and maintains that there has been no material damage to the aquifer. But the NNCRD says the findings were inadequate.
“The problem with OSMRE’s approach is that it is highly reliant on modeling programs that are outdated,” said Beckman. “As a consequence, while OSMRE maintains that the aquifer is not being damaged, it currently has little meaningful basis for its conclusion.” In this connection, internal agency documents obtained by NRDC reveal that OSMRE officials have themselves criticized the agency’s approach and called for an overhaul.
According to an independent study commissioned by NRDC and released with its report, government well monitoring shows that two wells exhibit reductions of more than 100 feet and data trends for four more wells indicate that they may soon exhibit declines of 100 feet or more. Moreover, discharge form five of nine monitored springs has slackened by more than 50%.
The N-aquifer is a vital water source in the region not only because of the dearth of water sources in a desert climate, but also because it is a pristine drinking water source, satisfying EPA’s standards for drinking water. Other aquifers above and below the N-aquifer are brackish and unsuitable for drinking water. Other government analysis shows that some localized contamination of the N-aquifer may be taking place now as changes in the water pressure of the aquifer brought on by pumping activities cause leaching from other contaminated aquifers into the N-aquifer.
NRDC’s report recommends immediate action to conserve the N-aquifer supply as well as long-term solutions that would reduce reliance on the aquifer. Among other things, NRDC recommends that Peabody cease groundwater pumping from the aquifer no later than 2005 and immediately implement a use-reduction plan. The Interior Department must recalibrate its modeling program and improve monitoring of the aquifer as well as adopt a “safe-yield” management goal for Black Mesa. Finally, NRDC with tribal consent, would like the Environmental Protection Agency to designate the N-aquifer as a “sole-source aquifer,” to strengthen protection of this vital drinking water source.