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Photo of a girl fetching water
A Thirsty Nation

by Tim Folger

The Hopi have sold their coal and their water to the Peabody company for decades. The money keeps flowing, but now their springs are running dry.

Seen from a distance, the tightly bunched adobe and sandstone homes of the Hopi pueblos look more like natural rock formations than like dwellings, barely distinguishable from the rugged ochre cliffs on which they perch. The pueblos lie on the southern edge of Black Mesa, a formation that sprawls across more than 5,000 square miles of northeastern Arizona. On relief maps, the mesa resembles a giant hand, with steep, rocky fingers stretching to the southwest. In this harsh, nearly treeless land, not a single permanent river or stream flows; no lakes reflect the oceanic desert sky. Yet the Hopi have farmed this parched earth for centuries. One of their villages, Oraibi, is the oldest continuously inhabited site in North America, occupied since 900 A.D.

Photo of the gardens at Moencopi villageEven though the Hopi have largely adopted a modern cash economy, nearly every family still farms at least part time. At this time of year -- late spring -- they are planting corn, melons, beans, and squash, just as they have for more than a thousand springtimes. In a region that sees less than 10 inches of rain a year, the Hopi long ago perfected a unique form of agriculture called dry farming. They seldom irrigate their crops, but sow seeds near gullies and dry washes that flood during the late-summer rainy season. They disperse their fields to take advantage of any scattered rainfall, so if one crop withers, another may survive. While the Hopi occasionally use tractors to plow, they tend and harvest their crops entirely by hand.

But even with the summer rains and the meticulous care of their fields, the Hopi's enduring presence in this land of mesas and sere plains would have been impossible had it not been for a secret they learned long ago. Hidden deep beneath the desert's rocky, scrubby surface are enormous reservoirs of water, much of it trapped in porous sandstone since the last ice age. These aquifers feed springs that seep from rock faces and bubble up from the desert floor. Without the springs there would be no Hopi; every village is built around one. To the tribe they are sacred, the setting for ancient rituals mostly closed to outsiders.

But now many of the springs and washes are drying up, and crops are wilting. And since one-quarter of the homes on the reservation lack running water, the failure of the springs means that many Hopi must drive their pickups to distant water stations to fill their five-gallon buckets. An outsider unfamiliar with the convoluted history here might attribute all this to the drought that has gripped the region for years. But the Hopi blame a relatively new resident on Black Mesa, one with a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the tribe's sole source of drinking water.

Thirty-eight years ago, the Hopi -- and the neighboring Navajo tribe -- struck a Faustian bargain with the world's biggest privately owned coal mining company, Peabody Energy. In exchange for desperately needed jobs and revenue, the tribes allowed Peabody to mine Black Mesa's rich coal deposits. The same agreement let Peabody pump from an aquifer that supplies drinking water for the approximately 10,000 Hopi and 27,000 Navajo who live on Black Mesa. The aquifer's water is so pure that it needs no treatment before drinking. With severe water shortages looming over the entire Southwest, both tribes are now demanding that Peabody stop using the aquifer by the end of 2005. But Peabody says that if the water is shut off, it may be forced to close one of its two mines on Black Mesa, a move that would eviscerate the tribes' fragile economies. Roughly 60 percent of the Hopi tribal government's annual budget, and 25 percent of that of the Navajos, comes from payments Peabody makes for the coal and water.

"It has been estimated that the value of the Black Mesa mines to the two tribes is in the neighborhood of $85 million a year," says Harris Sherman, who is an attorney for the Hopi tribe. "That's in the form of royalties, taxes, employment benefits, and secondary economic spin-offs. So when you're dealing with two of the poorest groups in the country, the closure of the mine would have a devastating impact."

Peabody runs two mines on the mesa -- the Kayenta and the Black Mesa. Combined, they are the largest strip-mining operation in the nation, and they lie entirely on Hopi and Navajo land. Earthmoving machines as big as buildings tear off football-field-size swaths of the desert's surface at one swipe. Mine workers, most of them Navajos earning good wages, dynamite the exposed seams into chunks small enough to be transported. Peabody ships coal from the Kayenta mine to a power plant on the Navajo reservation via an old rail line that was built before the company came to the mesa. The coal from the Black Mesa mine -- the one Peabody is threatening to close -- goes to the Mohave generating station in Laughlin, Nevada, owned by Southern California Edison and a consortium of four other utilities. There is no railroad to that plant, and Peabody saved substantial sums by not building one. The company found a far cheaper way to move the coal.

Every day, Peabody taps about three million gallons of water from the 3,000-foot-deep Navajo, or N, aquifer and mixes it with crushed coal to form a slurry. It pumps this mixture west through a 273-mile-long underground pipeline to the Mohave plant, where the coal is separated from the slurry and dried; the residual water is then channeled to the plant's boilers. The Black Mesa slurry line is the only one in the country and one of the few in the world. The technology has been almost universally rejected as grossly inefficient.

"It's just an epic waste of water to use 1.2 or 1.4 billion gallons of pristine drinking water annually to slurry coal in one of the most arid regions of the United States, a place that doesn't have enough drinking water for the people who live there," says David Beckman, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) who has worked closely with the Hopi for several years.

Can the Hopi and Navajo find some way to secure their water for the future without simultaneously ruining their economies? Unfortunately, they don't have much leverage. The Black Mesa and Kayenta coal represents only about 6 percent of the total that Peabody takes from its worldwide mining operations. Still, there may yet be a solution to the impasse. At the very least, Peabody could stop pumping from the N aquifer and switch to another aquifer on Black Mesa with lower water quality. But negotiations have often been contentious; the tribes are wary, with bitter memories dating to their first negotiations with Peabody 38 years ago. And though the issues may be particularly stark here -- the desert light casts everything in sharp relief -- the same sorts of trade-offs confront us all.

Hunting for Red Gold
Lonesome Lady
Click to enlarge

Black Mesa Trust

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Tim Folger is a contributing editor at Discover magazine and the series editor for The Best American Science and Nature Writing, an annual anthology published by Houghton Mifflin. Folger lives in New Mexico.

Photos: Alec Soth
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Fall 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council