By John Dougherty
Phoenix New Times
Eighty-two-year-old Valjean Joshvema leans forward in his
chair and sings
a Hopi prophecy that has come to pass.
The ageless Hopi lyrics foretell of an era when the Hopi will
high desert mesas they and their ancestors have occupied for
twelve millennia. According to the prophecy, the Hopi are searching
the sacred substance that has sustained their lives, their culture,
"The song refers to animals. That is us," says Joshvema,
whose home is
located in the 950-year-old village of Old Oraibi on the Hopi
in northeastern Arizona. "They will drink all the water
and will look
around for water with a dipper, and it's not there."
The song Joshvema learned during his childhood warns the Hopi
misuse water. The wages of such sin are ruination of North America's
oldest society--a society that subsists in an environment that
than twelve inches of rainfall a year.
"The prophecies are supposed to teach us not to do these
things, but we
are not listening," says Joshvema.
Joshvema is a member of Wuwtsim, one of several Hopi religious
says the religious society that once tightly bound the Hopi is
fading. Joshvema has been many things: a U.S. Marine, heavy-machinery
operator, farmer, rancher, spiritual advisor. But like many others
10,000-member tribe, Joshvema is convinced that the Hopi are
on a path
that could wreck their homeland.
Thirty-one years ago the Hopi Tribal Council struck an agreement
groundwater to Peabody Western Coal Company. That water is mixed
coal strip-mined by Peabody from nearby Hopi and Navajo lands
to make a
slurry. The mixture is then injected into America's only coal-slurry
pipeline, which leads to a massive electricity plant at Laughlin,
where the coal is burned to produce power for Las Vegas, Los
Although the tribe has received more than $100 million in
from Peabody in the past decade, many Hopi now contend that Peabody's
groundwater pumping is drying up springs and washes--destroying
tribe's link to its past and its hope for the future.
"The song ends," Joshvema says, "with, 'No
one will help us.'"
Fortunately, the final verse of the prophecy may not yet have
A new generation of Hopi leaders is emerging. These leaders
trained in American universities, the armed forces and federal
courtrooms, but they also revere traditional Hopi teachings.
fighting to protect Hopi water.
In the course of their work, they have discovered that their
predecessors are not solely to blame for the unfavorable terms
tribe's 1966 lease with Peabody.
The Hopi have learned that they were deceived by their lawyer
trusted and whom many loved. The late Salt Lake City attorney,
Boyden, negotiated a mining and groundwater agreement on behalf
Hopi with Peabody. For his work, the Hopi paid him more than
But Boyden, records reveal, was literally double-dealing--working
coal company at the same time he was working for the tribe. The
his deception are only now becoming clear--and only because of
of University of Colorado law professor Charles F. Wilkinson.
The agreement Boyden forged with Peabody is threatening to
rip the heart
out of what's left of traditional Hopi culture. If the groundwater
up, Joshvema and other Hopi would have to abandon their homeland.
"That would be the ultimate disaster," Joshvema
It's fitting that Black Mesa is so named, considering the
The formation towers 8,000 feet above sea level at its northern
near the Navajo town of Kayenta, in Arizona. The 3,300-square-mile
plateau gradually slopes southwestward to an altitude of 2,000
where it splits into fingerlike promontories. It is on these
mesas that the Hopi and their ancestors have survived for more
Black Mesa is bordered on the northwest by a vast outcropping
sandstone. The sandstone plunges beneath the 1,500-foot-high
Black Mesa--only to reappear in scattered locations fifty or
to the southwest, near the Hopi villages.
The sandstone beneath Black Mesa contains huge quantities
of water, as
much as 300 million acre-feet. But only a fraction of this amount
withdrawn by wells or will ever flow naturally through springs
The Hopi first settled near springs and washes fed by the
sandstone and other, shallower aquifers. Their society developed
intimate relationship with water and its sources--rain, snow,
Until recently, the Navajo sandstone and other aquifers beneath
Mesa were in equilibrium: The discharges into springs and washes
equal to the amount of water being recharged into the aquifers
The Hopi culture thrived with the natural ebb and flow of
below. Black Mesa itself has long been an important area to both
and the Navajo. It contains numerous sacred shrines and burial
grounds--many of which have been destroyed by Peabody's mining
operations, according to a 1996 ruling by a Department of the
administrative law judge.
In the early 1960s Peabody signed leases with the Hopi and
that allowed the company to prospect and mine coal on more than
square miles of Black Mesa. Peabody hit the jackpot. The company
discovered one of the richest coal deposits in the world--and
exclusive rights to it.
By the early 1970s Peabody had built one of the largest coal
in the United States. The company signed long-term coal contracts
two power plants that were built in the early '70s to sate the
needs of burgeoning Southwestern cities.
One of those contracts is with Southern California Edison's
Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada. Peabody engineers reviewed
several possible methods of transporting the coal to Laughlin,
truck and rail. But the company also knew that Black Mesa sat
sodden Navajo sandstone.
The company decided that the cheapest way to transport its
Laughlin was to mix the coal with groundwater and inject the
an underground pipeline. The company draws water from eight wells
deep into the thickest section of the Navajo sandstone aquifer;
sucks 3,800 acre-feet of water each year from the ground. (An
is the amount of water that would cover an acre of land to a
depth of one
foot; it is also estimated to be the amount of water used by
a family of
four in a year.) The 273-mile-long pipeline moves about five
of coal each year.
Once the pumping began, the Navajo sandstone aquifer was thrown
balance. Natural discharges and well withdrawals exceeded recharge.
Peabody believes the amount of water it is withdrawing is small
comparison to the size of the aquifer. "If we ship all the
coal to Mohave
that is available to us, we will only use one-tenth of 1 percent
volume of the water in the aquifer," says Peabody vice president
operations Gary A. Melvin.
But the Hopi contend that because their villages are located
southern edge of Black Mesa, above a considerably narrower portion
Navajo sandstone aquifer, Peabody's withdrawals are lowering
table and drying up water sources that were reliable in the past.
"When you start withdrawing that amount of water, that
recharge of the springs, and it can have a devastating impact,"
Nutongla, director of the Hopi tribe's water-resources program.
The debate over how much impact Peabody's wells are having
is being waged
in a seemingly endless series of contradictory hydrogeologic
definitive answer may be decades away.
But one thing is certain on Black Mesa: Peabody's coal-slurry
remain a center of controversy.
Slurry lines are rarely used to transport coal in the United
fact that Peabody uses the method in one of the driest regions
In a 1993 letter to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt,
tribe complained that the slurry line at Black Mesa "is
the only instance
in American history where coal has been transported with groundwater,
alone pristine groundwater that represents the only source of
water for an Indian Tribe."
The past and present collide on the Hopi's beautiful mesas.
constructed sandstone rock homes dating back a century or more
interspersed with the angular cinderblock homes of today.
Dirt roads twist through ancient villages and lead to homes
Hopi villages have retained a distinct, noncommercial identity.
Businesses are few. Advertising and billboards are sparse. Hopi
rejected a proposal to build casinos as a revenue source. Many
self-employed artisans or work for the tribal government.
Where its Navajo neighbors are building modern shopping centers,
reservation, which is surrounded by the Navajo reservation, has
small markets. Most Hopi still drive to Flagstaff, a hundred
to do such basic tasks as wash clothes.
Power, water and sewer lines are slowly linking Hopi villages
society many have resisted for decades.
Dances, ceremonies and art remain vital to the Hopi, but Hopi
traditionalists say their spiritual underpinnings have become
Hopi youth stepping off a school bus look like many urban
saggy jeans and hip-hop styles. They're wild about basketball.
As modern technology encroaches on the Hopi mesas, many of
of the past are fading. The Hopi language is dying; few children
their native tongue. The gardens that once flourished on the
hillsides are crumbling from neglect.
Few Hopi gather their water from springs as their ancestors
did. The art
of dry-land farming is losing its luster. The lure of the conveniences
modern life is disconnecting the Hopi from their past.
It is a trend that disturbs many traditional Hopi.
"The young people are getting further and further away
from our culture,"
Valjean Joshvema laments.
The Hopi are a divided people; many traditionalists don't
the Tribal Council as a legitimate body. But on the issue of
leaders--both progressive and traditional--are united.
They believe Peabody's extraction of 1.2 billion gallons of
year is drying up springs and diminishing flows in washes they
worshiped and relied upon for generations.
"We are facing a tragic situation by depleting our only
says progressive Hopi tribal chairman Ferrell Secakuku.
"It is important for Peabody not to waste the water,
because that is our
only source," says Dalton Taylor, a seventy-year-old rancher
regularly makes lengthy pilgrimages to far-flung sacred sites.
Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman, believes that
the Hopis' vital link to their past. Since he left the council
he's been on a mission to educate his people about the importance
"I really want us to go back to honor, respect and trust
wisdom, to go back to our relationship with water," Masayesva
"Water is sacred. Water is a blessing."
Peabody says the Hopi claims are nonsense. The company acknowledges
the water table will drop during the life of its mine. But the
all be mined within thirty years, and Peabody executives promise
groundwater will be replenished within a decade of the mine's
The company cites several hydrogeological studies that indicate
groundwater use is not drying up springs. The company blames
changes for variations in spring and wash flows that concern
"The evidence continues to support that there is really
impact," says Peabody's Melvin.
In the middle of the fray is Bruce Babbitt. The former Arizona
is saying nothing about the contentious issue. His department
proposal to build a water pipeline from Lake Powell to Peabody's
mine and to communities on the Hopi and Navajo reservations.
would provide Peabody another water source for its slurry line
renewable water supplies to Hopi and Navajo communities.
But the department's proposal would also require the Hopi
to pay $75
million or more to get Lake Powell surface water through ninety
pipeline to Peabody's mine and farther to the dozen Hopi villages
across the southern edge of Black Mesa.
While the prospect of Lake Powell water for Peabody and the
sounds alluring, Hopi resistance is mounting.
"They want us to mortgage our grandchildren's future
to solve a problem
that is not caused by us," says Masayesva.
Masayesva is urging the Tribal Council to reject the pipeline
focus on conservation and development of other water resources,
obtaining rights to 50,000 acre-feet per year of Colorado River
At the same time, Masayesva says the tribe must pressure Babbitt
Peabody to cease groundwater pumping. The tribe should be prepared
take legal steps that include shutting down the mine, he says.
There are indications that Babbitt has the authority to force
the groundwater and that the Hopi have the legal power to close
Former secretary of the interior Stewart Udall approved the
lease in 1966, but only after adding a key stipulation. Under
provision, if Peabody's wells are found to be "endangering
the supply of
underground water," the interior secretary may order Peabody
another water source at its "sole expense."
During a phone interview from his office in Santa Fe, Udall
Babbitt should protect the Hopi. It is time, Udall says, for
champion the best solution for the Indians."
If Bruce Babbitt follows that advice, he will run head-on
into one of the
most powerful industrial consortiums in the United States.
Peabody Western Coal Company is the hub of a prodigious industrial
that has fueled growth and development in the Southwest for thirty
Peabody is a subsidiary of a British multinational corporation,
Energy Group, which is rapidly increasing its investment in U.S.
Peabody clears profits of $60 million to $70 million a year
Indian coal-mine leaseholds, according to Hopi chairman Ferrell
A Peabody spokeswoman calls that estimate "overstated."
It is charitable to say that Peabody got a great deal on its
leases with the Hopi and Navajo tribes, paying each tribe a 3.3
royalty, about half the royalty rate elsewhere at the time. Peabody
dodged an assortment of taxes.
Then there's the groundwater, which Peabody got at incredibly
The Navajo initially were paid $5 per acre-foot of water while
received a mere $1.67 per acre-foot for the groundwater that
be pumped from 2,000 feet below the surface at an astounding
2,000 to 4,500 gallons per minute. The rates were renegotiated
in 1987 to
reflect the market value of the water--Peabody says it now pays
average of $3.2 million per year for 3,800 acre-feet of water,
average of $840 per acre-foot.
Peabody operates two adjacent mines on Black Mesa under leases
The Black Mesa Mine supplies coal fuel for the 1,580-megawatt
Generating Station, operated by Southern California Edison. Once
separated from the coal, the Hopi water is used as a coolant
in the power
plant. Other owners of the power plant include the Los Angeles
of Water and Power, Nevada Power Company and Arizona's Salt River
The second mine, called Kayenta, is dedicated to the Navajo
Station located near Page, Arizona. Peabody ships about seven
tons of coal each year to that 2,310-megawatt plant via a 78-mile-long
The Navajo power plant was built primarily to provide power
the $5 billion Central Arizona Project, a series of canals that
water more than 300 miles from the Colorado River near Lake Havasu
Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas and surrounding farms,
and Indian tribes. CAP is designed to deliver more than two million
acre-feet of water per year to central Arizona towns, an amount
sufficient to provide for eight million people.
Like the Mohave plant, the Navajo power station provides electricity
powerful utility companies, including the Salt River Project
facility's operator), Arizona Public Service Company, Nevada
Company, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Tucson
Peabody not only fuels a massive power and water grid that
economic development in the Southwest; the mining conglomerate
become the economic backbone of the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
Revised leases in 1987 greatly increased royalties to both
recent years the Hopi tribe has received about $10 million of
million annual budget from Peabody. The Navajo Nation, 160,000
collecting about $35 million a year in coal royalties and water
from Peabody. (The Navajo are receiving more royalties because
are located primarily on Navajo land.)
Peabody's mines also employ about 700 Navajo workers and a
Hopi employees at wages and benefits averaging more than $55,000
annually. A fringe benefit for the Native Americans: all the
they can cart off.
Facing so much economic power, it's not surprising that Hopi
about groundwater remain unknown to the public--let alone attract
attention from Congress or the Clinton administration.
And the Hopi are alone in their fight to get Peabody off groundwater.
Navajo government is not concerned about Peabody's groundwater
Stanley Pollack, water-rights attorney for the Navajo, claims
there is no
evidence that Peabody's groundwater withdrawals are damaging
Pollack says diminished flow from Hopi springs and washes is
improper placement of Hopi municipal wells rather than Peabody's
Peabody, Pollack says, draws all the attention because it
vast amounts from the aquifer. But Peabody's wells are many miles
from Hopi villages and have only a minor effect on groundwater
the Hopi reservation, Pollack claims.
"Peabody," Pollack says, "is an easy target."
Since his term as Hopi tribal chairman expired in 1993, Vernon
has devoted much of his time to finding a way to stop Peabody
groundwater for its mining operations.
While the numerous groundwater studies conducted by both private
federal agencies are inconclusive, Masayesva is more convinced
that Peabody is having a serious impact on Hopi water supplies.
"The more we look into the impact on the aquifer, the
more we find
serious damage occurring," Masayesva says.
Tribal elders report numerous instances of diminished or drying
that hydrogeologists have linked directly to the Navajo sandstone
Masayesva also points to an April 1996 draft report prepared
by the U.S.
Geological Survey that shows a sharply reduced groundwater-recharge
in the area of the aquifer shared by Peabody and Hopi villages.
The report concludes that 90 percent of the water in the aquifer
10,000 to 35,000 years old and that it collected there during
The report also states that the current recharge rate of the
2,600 to 3,600 acre-feet per year, substantially less than the
USGS estimate of 4,800 acre-feet per year.
Most important, at least to the Hopi, is that the USGS draft
for the first time that Peabody is taking out more water than
The draft report, Masayesva says, is an important development
in the long
series of studies on the aquifer.
But so far, the USGS report remains in draft form, in part
extensive comments provided by Peabody, which helped pay for
The company conducted its own study using the same techniques
as USGS and
concluded that the recharge rate is much higher than USGS's draft
according to Gary Melvin at Peabody.
In fact, Melvin says the Peabody data shows the recharge rate
to be near
predictions in USGS models developed in the early 1980s. Peabody's
has been forwarded to USGS for consideration in the agency's
report, Melvin says.
"We have yet to see anything that would cause us any
concern or lead us
to change any of the assumptions in our earlier studies,"
The Hopi, however, claim they don't need definitive proof
to shut down
Masayesva says the tribe's obligation under federal law is
to simply show
that there is a "threat" to the groundwater resource.
Once that threat is shown, the federal government--under its
responsibility to Indian tribes--is required to conduct the studies
determine whether Peabody is depleting the aquifer.
And in this case, Masayesva says, the government doesn't have
damage, but only that Peabody poses a danger to the aquifer.
standard is a result of the lease language required by Stewart
"Should the Secretary of Interior determine, at any time,
operation of the wells by [Peabody] is endangering the supply
underground water in the vicinity or is so lowering the water
users of such water are being damaged, he may...require Peabody
Company, at its sole expense, to obtain water for its mining
operations from another source that will not significantly affect
supply of underground water in the vicinity."
Masayesva and Hopi water attorneys believe the clause gives
a powerful lever, if he wants to pull it.
"Babbitt has a trust responsibility to protect the natural
he has discretionary authority to make the decision requiring
stop using groundwater without calling for absolute proof on
the part of
the Hopi," Masayesva says.
Hopi water officials say there are plenty of scientific reports
the groundwater is being depleted by Peabody and that Hopi supplies
Hopi hydrologist Ron Morgan points to a series of USGS reports
clearly show Peabody's pumping is directly related to declining
levels in Hopi municipal wells. Water levels in Keams Canyon
example, have fallen more than 160 feet since Peabody began pumping.
USGS hydrologist Gregory Littin says about half of that depletion
Keams Canyon can be attributed to Peabody's groundwater pumping.
Despite such evidence, the Department of the Interior has
refused to act.
Hopi attorneys' requests have gotten nowhere with Interior. (Babbitt's
press secretary, Mary Helen Thompson, promised on several occasions
get "somebody" to talk about the issue with a reporter,
but she didn't.)
Interior's silence on the issue is a bit surprising, considering
department itself has displayed concern over Peabody's use of
Former interior secretary Manuel Lujan rejected Peabody's
a mining permit at the Black Mesa Mine in 1990 because of groundwater
concerns. Instead, Lujan issued an interim permit to Peabody,
Interior's refusal to issue a mining permit stems in part
from a 1990
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report that concluded the
groundwater for the coal-slurry line "is not an environmentally
Peabody claims a 1993 water study funded by the two tribes
conclusively proves there has been no long-term impact to the
Peabody asked Interior's Office of Surface Mining to issue a
on that report. The Hopi vehemently objected to the validity
of the study
and to the fact that they were not allowed to comment on the
before Peabody sent it to the Office of Surface Mining.
The conflict between the Hopi and Peabody continues while
on the sidelines. The department still hasn't issued Peabody
"life of mine" permit for Black Mesa. Mining continues
unabated under the
The Department of the Interior's inaction has led Masayesva
to seek the
aid of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a prominent
Francisco law firm to develop a strategy.
The NRDC has hired a hydrogeologist to study groundwater reports
many years. It also is developing a legal strategy that emphasizes
environmental harm done by using drinking water for a coal-slurry
"Peabody's use of groundwater strikes us as a very tremendous
waste of a
precious resource in the Southwest," says NRDC attorney
Beckman agrees that the Department of the Interior has an
protect the tribe's natural resources and to act before the aquifer
sustains major damage.
"The law instructs the government to very carefully and
represent the best interests of the Hopi tribe," Beckman
There are other ways to move Peabody's coal to Nevada, including
the use of piped-in Lake Powell water for the slurry, Beckman
Economic studies commissioned by the Hopi show the cost of
pipeline capable of transporting 4,400 acre-feet of water a year
Lake Powell to the Black Mesa Mine would raise the price of electricity
to residential consumers in California, Arizona and Nevada by
and 6 cents per month.
Even Peabody has acknowledged that low-cost transportation
Mike Hyer, a Peabody executive, told the California Energy
during a November 1993 hearing that the company has developed
alternatives to the "worst-case scenario"--its loss
of groundwater for
the slurry line.
"We believe there are alternatives out there," Hyer
told the commission.
Those alternatives are such "that Black Mesa coal would
remain a low-cost
source of coal for the Mohave station."
Peabody spokeswoman Beth Ulinger says the alternative Hyer
spoke of is
the Lake Powell pipeline.
If the water pipeline from Lake Powell is built, Udall says,
government should not charge the Hopi for the water.
"They shouldn't be forced to pay for the water,"
Udall says. "The
government--by that I mean the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the
Department--have not really done right by the Hopis in this whole
They didn't protect them."
Udall knows only too well how badly the United States government
in its legal obligation to protect the Hopi.
Udall was interior secretary when his agency approved Peabody's
water leases with the tribe. Udall says he was concerned even
Peabody's use of groundwater.
"I thought about it a lot, and I could have vetoed it,"
Udall says. "I
held it up [lease agreements] for a year because of water concerns."
Udall says a primary concern he had at the time was making
sure the Hopi
and Navajo tribes supported the lease agreements with Peabody.
'What do the Indians want to do? I'm not going to approve it
Navajo Tribal Council, and the Hopi, their governments, approved
That's when the Hopi were deceived by their trusted lawyer,
the late John
Udall knew that the Hopi Tribal Council was deeply divided
on the issue
and lacked widespread support from many traditional Hopi who
Nevertheless, he approved the lease after Boyden persuaded
the Hopi to go
along with the deal.
"Boyden got some kind of resolution through the Tribal
says. "If he had not done so, I wouldn't have approved it."
Three decades later, information has surfaced that details
in negotiating for the Hopi with Peabody.
Documents unearthed by CU law professor Charles Wilkinson
Boyden violated the sacred trust he held with the Hopi. He also
a legal tenet.
"John Boyden's legal files, donated to the University
of Utah after his
death in 1980 but only recently available for public review,
Boyden violated his high duty to the Hopi by working concurrently
Peabody Coal during the decisive years of the mid-1960s,"
states in a lengthy paper published in the Brigham Young University
Review in 1996.
Udall says he was stunned to learn of Wilkinson's findings.
to avoid such conflicts of interest at all costs.
"I naturally feel pangs of conscience about this at this
point by the way
it has all turned out," Udall says. "And I'm particularly
the Hopi point of view because of what Boyden did."
The traditional Hopi knew all along.
For nearly fifty years, their pleas to the federal government
mining in the heart of their homeland on Black Mesa have been
Hopi religious leaders, the Kikmongwi, beseeched President
in 1949 to forbid such atrocity.
Truman ignored them.