It has become fashionable in the Southwest to oppose economic development under the guise of safeguarding the environment. This has spawned some controversial ideas like draining Lake Powell and shutting down the Black Mesa Mine. Such notions don’t make environmental, economic or practical sense and would cause tremendous hardship on communities.
The Southwest must continue to deal rationally with water issues to avoid stalling key sectors of the economy, particularly when it comes to energy resource development on tribal lands. In northeastern Arizona, use of water for energy production has become increasingly high profile because the Hopi Tribe no longer wants to allow Peabody Western Coal Company to obtain water from an aquifer that underlies the Hopi and Navajo reservations.
Even though the Hopi want Peabody to end aquifer use, the tribe still wants mining to continue because it brings in substantial revenue for government services. Anyone who questions the economic importance of coal to the Hopi and Navajo should consider that for more than three decades, Peabody has been leasing coal and purchasing water from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe in return for a more than $2 billion impact in royalty payments, taxes, wages and other benefits.
Mining injects $2 million weekly into tribal economies and accounts for 80 percent of the Hopi Tribe’s annual budget and 30 percent of the Navajo Nation’s general budget. Those benefits include free potable water from the aquifer and significant community support through tribal scholarships and contributions.
Determined to find an alternative that will preserve production of affordable energy, hundreds of high paying jobs and significant tribal revenue, the Hopi and Navajo, along with their energy partners, have developed a coalition aimed at finding a solution that is technically feasible and environmentally friendly. Studies show that trucking the coal or developing a rail do not fill the bill on either count. Therefore, more than a half-dozen water alternatives have been explored in the past 18 months.
One option, which the Navajo have proposed, is to pump brackish groundwater from a large source known as the C-Aquifer. Also considered have been several other proposals that would tap water from the Colorado River, with varying points of diversion, including nearby Lake Powell. The parties are continuing to work toward common ground, alleviating the water situation by securing an alternative.
Unless there is a new source of water for the pipeline, the Black Mesa Mine and the Mohave plant will likely close in three years, which would be a travesty for Southwest electricity users, for the tribes and for mine employees. Make no mistake, energy resources can – and should – be developed in ways that benefit the economy and are environmentally sound. That’s worth considering as work to identify a new water source continues.
(Diane Hansen is Executive Director of Friends of Lake Powell, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserve and protect Lake Powell, Glen Canyon Dam and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.)