Dark Days on Black Mesa

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As modern technology encroaches on the Hopi mesas, many of the traditions of the past are fading. The Hopi language is dying; few children learn their native tongue. The gardens that once flourished on the steep 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 of 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 even recognize the Tribal Council as a legitimate body. But on the issue of water, Hopi leaders--both progressive and traditional--are united.

They believe Peabody's extraction of 1.2 billion gallons of groundwater a year is drying up springs and diminishing flows in washes they have worshiped and relied upon for generations.

"We are facing a tragic situation by depleting our only water source," 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 who regularly makes lengthy pilgrimages to far-flung sacred sites.

Vernon Masayesva, a former tribal chairman, believes that water remains the Hopis' vital link to their past. Since he left the council in 1993, he's been on a mission to educate his people about the importance of their water.

"I really want us to go back to honor, respect and trust the ancient wisdom, to go back to our relationship with water," Masayesva says. "Water is sacred. Water is a blessing."

Peabody says the Hopi claims are nonsense. The company acknowledges that the water table will drop during the life of its mine. But the coal will all be mined within thirty years, and Peabody executives promise groundwater will be replenished within a decade of the mine's closure.

The company cites several hydrogeological studies that indicate Peabody's groundwater use is not drying up springs. The company blames climatic changes for variations in spring and wash flows that concern Hopi farmers and ranchers.

"The evidence continues to support that there is really no significant impact," says Peabody's Melvin.

In the middle of the fray is Bruce Babbitt. The former Arizona governor is saying nothing about the contentious issue. His department supports a proposal to build a water pipeline from Lake Powell to Peabody's coal mine and to communities on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. The pipeline would provide Peabody another water source for its slurry line and bring 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 miles of pipeline to Peabody's mine and farther to the dozen Hopi villages arrayed across the southern edge of Black Mesa.

While the prospect of Lake Powell water for Peabody and the Hopi villages 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 plan and focus on conservation and development of other water resources, including obtaining rights to 50,000 acre-feet per year of Colorado River water.

At the same time, Masayesva says the tribe must pressure Babbitt and Peabody to cease groundwater pumping. The tribe should be prepared to take legal steps that include shutting down the mine, he says.

There are indications that Babbitt has the authority to force Peabody off the groundwater and that the Hopi have the legal power to close the mine.

Former secretary of the interior Stewart Udall approved the Peabody coal lease in 1966, but only after adding a key stipulation. Under that provision, if Peabody's wells are found to be "endangering the supply of underground water," the interior secretary may order Peabody to find another water source at its "sole expense."

During a phone interview from his office in Santa Fe, Udall says that Babbitt should protect the Hopi. It is time, Udall says, for Babbitt "to 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 engine that has fueled growth and development in the Southwest for thirty years. Peabody is a subsidiary of a British multinational corporation, The Energy Group, which is rapidly increasing its investment in U.S. utility companies.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty

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