Dark Days on Black Mesa

Page 11 of 12

"I played an important role in this. I can't deny that. We were frantic to get the CAP through Congress," Udall says.

Several major political and technical problems needed to be solved. Tremendous amounts of electricity would be needed to move as much as 2.2 million acre-feet of water more than 300 miles, over mountains, to central and southern Arizona.

The first plan was to build two hydroelectric power plants in the Grand Canyon. But the Sierra Club launched a massive publicity campaign and thwarted the proposal by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1966. A secondary plan soon emerged that called for a coal-fired power plant to be built near Page.

Udall again played a key role in nurturing the development of the Page power plant on Navajo land. The plant would be fueled by Black Mesa coal.

"Udall interceded saying if they [CAP backers] give up the fight for power plants in the Grand Canyon, he would help them get the Page plant," says historian Alvin Josephy.

"It was a big mistake of Udall's," says Josephy, a close friend of Udall's. "He was allowing people to deal for the Indians without even telling the Indians most of the time what was being dealt away."

Utilities were eager to construct power plants in remote locations so as not to exacerbate pollution problems in the burgeoning urban areas of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix. Twenty-three Western utilities formed a consortium called WEST Associates to push for development of coal resources on Black Mesa and throughout the Four Corners region, where several highly polluting plants already existed.

Salt River Project soon presented plans to build the Navajo Generating Station near Page on Navajo land.

The coal for that plant would come from Black Mesa.
While the Page plant would solve the technical problem, the politics were more tangled. California, which was accustomed to receiving Arizona's share of Colorado River water, fought the CAP. To help persuade California and Nevada to support the project, another power plant was proposed: the Mohave Generating Station near Laughlin, Nevada. That plant was dedicated to supplying cheap power primarily to Southern California and Nevada.

Once again, Black Mesa was to be the source of coal. The water beneath Black Mesa would be used in the slurry line to transport coal from the mine to the plant. And after the coal was removed, the water would be used in the power plant's cooling system.

A political resolution finally was hammered out in the 1968 Colorado Basin River Project Act, which set the stage for the construction of the CAP and the two massive electric generating stations.

The whole deal depended on Black Mesa.
The Hopi and Navajo were in a unique position to strike lucrative deals with Peabody and the utilities. Without their coal, the CAP wouldn't get past square one.

"Boyden knew the leverage the Hopi had," Wilkinson says.
But Boyden was also working for Peabody coal.
Instead of cutting a lucrative deal, the Hopi (and for that matter the Navajo, who were represented by separate counsel) ended up with scraps.

It wouldn't be until 1987--21 years after signing the initial lease--that the tribes began to get anywhere near a market rate of return for their coal.

By then Boyden was dead.
"He failed them miserably," Wilkinson says.
The $5 billion CAP has yet to fulfill its promise.

The heavily subsidized water is used on heavily subsidized crops. High payments on the CAP debt have forced several agricultural irrigation districts into bankruptcy. Many municipalities have rejected using the expensive and low-quality water. Arizona still is failing to take its full allotment of CAP water.

At the canal's terminus west of Tucson, millions of gallons of Colorado River water that have been pumped across 300 miles of desert, propelled by power generated with Black Mesa coal, are unceremoniously dumped onto a dry lake bed.

The costly CAP water either evaporates or percolates back into the earth.

The Hopi experience with John Boyden taught them a lesson. The tribe no longer relies on a single attorney for all its legal matters.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Indian lands and politics, there's a potential conflict of interest under every rock.

The tribe is currently in sensitive negotiations to settle a complicated water-rights case on the Little Colorado River, which flows near the Hopi reservation. A proposal to build a pipeline that would deliver Lake Powell water to Peabody coal and to the Hopi and Navajo tribes is part of the settlement.

The plan requires the Hopi to pay $75 million or more to get 2,000 acre-feet of Lake Powell water each year to its villages. The proposal would also allow Peabody to stop pumping groundwater--a high priority of the Hopi.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty

Latest Stories