Black Mesa and the Navajo Aquifer

In northeastern Arizona there is an enormous underground water basin called the Navaho Aquifer. This aquifer is located under the area of Black Mesa. Not only is there a large water reserve under Black Mesa, but there is a coal reserve that was estimated to have up to Twenty-One Billion tons as well. The residents of Black Mesa consist of around Twenty-Seven Thousand Navajos and Ten Thousand Hopis(Zarsky, 2006). These indigenous people have occupied Black Mesa since the 1500’s and have strived and lived off of the aquifer, using it mostly for agriculture. With regards to western expansion the Navajo and Hopi tribes have responded in different ways. “The Hopis have remained essentially a spatially fixed, highly organized social group with a complex and intricate system of religious beliefs which are strongly related to their meager and precarious resource base. The Navaho, on the other hand, has been more greatly influenced by interactions with Puebloan and Spanish peoples”(Goodman & Thompson, 1975). The Navajos were taught by the Spaniards to incorporate sheep and horse back into their ways of living. This caused for the Navajo tribe to be more spread out due to their accessible transportation method. In the process of spreading out of the tribe and westernizing, they lost some of their tradition and beliefs of Black Mesa being sacred. The Hopis did not accept the new western ways like the Navajos did and because of this they were able to keep their practices and beliefs of Black Mesa and the Navajo Aquifer sacred (Goodman & Thompson, 1975).

The aquifer has played such a big role in survival and due to the duration that it has supported the indigenous tribes, it makes sense to why the Hopis believe it is sacred. “The Hopis maintain a very strong reliance upon annual cycles, particularly the growth cycle of cultivated plants and the occurrence of precipitation. Their annual cycle of native religious ceremonies are keyed to hopes for rain and fertility”(Goodman & Thompson, 1975). Although the Hopis continue to practice and have ceremonies to preserve their land and have their land keep providing for them, that is not the only reason they see it as sacred. It has been said that a spirit dubbed the land as sacred as explained by, “Vernon Masayesva, former Hopi tribal council chairman and founder of Black Mesa Trust, ‘We have a sacred covenant with the person who was here a long time before our ancestors arrived. That person, a farmer and powerful spirit named Maasau, gave the Hopis permission to use the land, warning them: ‘To survive here, you have to have a very strong spiritual life. But if you take care of this land and use its resources in the best possible way, you will be here a long time.’”(Zarsky, 2006).

Although the Hopi tribe does not use the coal, it is a part of their sacred land. The two major coal-bearing formations of Black Mesa are the Wepo and the Dakota (Goodman & Thompson, 1975). A major energy company, Peabody Energy, had a very high interest in tapping into these massive coal reservations. Not only did the company want to use the coal but also they needed to use the Navajo Aquifer to “supply water for their slurry pipeline which transports coal from the Black Mesa to Bull Head City in western Arizona” (Goodman & Thompson, 1975). Without realizing the effect of the amount of water Peabody was going to use (forty billion gallons by 2005) the Navajos and Hopis agreed to lease Black Mesa coal and water to Peabody Energy. The Department of Interior, DOI, brokered this deal (Zarsky, 2006). The justification and indigenous support behind this lease was decided by the Hopi Tribal Council as well as the Navajo Nation. Peabody Energy was willing to pay millions of dollars to these indigenous groups and for more than three decades the tribes depended on the mining and slurry operations (Zarksy, 2006).

Taking the large sum of water that Peabody did, surface water as well as obvious amounts of the aquifer water were greatly depleted. These were not the only effects Peabody had on the land.  “Questions of environmental deterioration associated with strip mining have drawn further interest in the land dispute from conservation groups and traditional Navaho religious leaders who wish to preserve sacred lands” (Goodman & Thompson, 1975). This led to many Navajos having to travel up to 25 miles to fill fifty-five gallon drums and then take them back home. At this point in time it was vey fortunate, with regards to transporting the water, that their old ways of horse back have been upgraded to pickup trucks (Zarsky, 2006).

The effects that Peabody had on Black Mesa were obvious, but the company denied them completely. “Armed with scientific data, Peabody blames a 20-year drought” (Zarsky, 2006). On the contrary, “other studies, including ‘Drawdown: Groundwater Mining on Black Mesa,’ by the Natural Resources Defense Council, have found, however, that the effects of the groundwater extraction are significant, including seepage of poor-quality water, a falling water table, and depletion of springs” (Zarsky, 2006). Peabody Energy even spent large amounts of money (two million dollars) to create a 3D model to prove that the amount of water they were taking was only minuscule and did not have an effect, but in a hard-won consensus, both tribes demanded that Peabody stopped using water from the Navajo Aquifer” (Zarsky, 2006). Peabody Energy did not follow these demands and they even asked for a permit to expand the mine and most detrimental, Peabody wanted to increase the use of the aquifer by 32%. When the permit passed, the indigenous people knew that the government was not on their side and they had to fight for their sacred land. A large group of the indigenous people and even outsiders who knew about this were not in favor and almost 7,000 public comments were sent to the DOI for the sake of opposing Peabody’s use of the aquifer. The impact of these Navajo and Hopi supporters caused the company to be required to stop using the Navajo aquifer by 2005 and find an alternative water supply to slurry their coal. Failing to find an alternative water supply, the Black Mesa mine was finally shutdown on December 31, 2005 (Zarsky, 2006).

This incident over sacred land is a great example of how outsiders can be unaware of their impacts on tradition and the life of indigenous people. Black Mesa, being occupied since the 1500’s, is a long lasting crutch and foundation for the Hopis, as well the center point of their sacred beliefs. How can one of the richest energy companies feel the need to exploit sacred land, even after being told that the effects were ruining the land and sacred aquifer? Even though Peabody was originally allowed to do this by the natives, it was wrong for them to continue to after being told that their company has taken a toll on the land and that they needed to stop. Being a large company that cares more about money than indigenous people, Peabody attempted to take more and expand upon being asked to stop. A possible blindness to the situation is that the CEO of Peabody, Greg Boyce, truly believed that coal was the future of natural resources (Zarsky, 2006). This sacred land dispute made history for indigenous culture. The support that Navajo and Hopis gained was enough to fight back against the prospering, but blind, energy company, as well as the non supportive government. The fight made to preserve the sacred land at Black Mesa was an inspiration to all indigenous culture to defend themselves from even more western expansion and mistreatment. If no fight was made, the Navajo Aquifer would have been ruined and the sacred tradition of the Hopis would have been put into extinction.


Works Cited


Goodman, James M., and Gary L. Thompson. “American Indian Law Review.” American Indian Law Review. 3.2 (1975): 397-408. Web. 3 Nov. 2012.

Zarsky, Lyuba. “Sacred Land Film Project.” Sacred Land Film Project. (2006): 38-44. Web. 2006.

2 Responses to Black Mesa and the Navajo Aquifer

  1. Pingback: Energy-starved utilities and the exploitation of the Navajo

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