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Navajo, Battling Covid, Say Coal Mines Sapped Drinking Water

June 17, 2020, 10:01 AM

To follow hand-washing guidelines recommended by health professionals, Navajo Nation member Percy Deal drives his pickup truck once a week about 17 miles to wait in line for as long as an hour at a communal well.

There, he fills up two 55-gallon drums at the cost of 1 cent a gallon.

“I use the same water at least five or six times before I throw it out,” Deal said. “It’s very dirty, but otherwise, I would run out of water in less than a week. And I can’t afford that.”

Lack of running water has long plagued the Navajo Nation. About a third of homes don’t have it; in some towns, it’s 90 percent.

While several factors contribute to that, many tribal members say Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal producer, pulled so much water from the Navajo Aquifer before closing its last mining operation there last August that many wells and springs have run dry—at a time Covid-19 has hit the Nation harder than any state. The aquifer is the main source of potable water for residents.

“It’s not just me, it’s hundreds of my neighbors,” Deal said. “Peabody drained the aquifer for 45 years, so we all don’t have any water.”

With a population of about 175,000, the 27,000-square-mile Nation in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico recently surpassed New York as having the highest rate of coronavirus cases per capita in the U.S., with a 3.4% infection rate to New York’s 1.9%. But staying at home and social distancing become problematic when the only way for many households to have water to wash their hands is to go get it.

“If people drill wells, they expect to get water at 400 to 500 feet deep. Our water is 2,000 to 3,000 feet deep,” said Nicole Horseherder, director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, or “Sacred Water Speaks,” a Native environmental group. The draining of water from the aquifer also depressurized it, making it harder for it to flow to the surface, she said.

And with the median household income on the Nation about $30,000, “we can’t be running around drilling million-dollar wells and putting pumps on them so we can get the water out,” she said.

Too Dependent

Until it closed in 2005, Peabody’s Black Mesa Mine extracted, pulverized, and mixed coal with water drawn from the aquifer to form a slurry, which it then sent along a 273-mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada, which provided most of its power to Los Angeles.

At the time the 18-inch pipeline was the longest coal slurry pipeline operating in the U.S., according to the Center for Land Use Interpretation, a public lands research and education organization. The mine extracted as much as 1.3 billion gallons of water from the aquifer annually, an estimated 45 billion gallons in Black Mesa’s life cycle.

Peabody also used the aquifer’s water at its Kayenta mine, which shipped its last load of coal in August 2019. That was three months before the closure of its only customer, Navajo Generating Station, a 2,250-megawatt coal plant on Navajo land and the largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi River.

Navajo Generating Station supplied power to customers in Arizona, California, and Nevada, and was at one time the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S.

Hundreds of Navajos and Hopis lost their jobs with the closure of Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta. In 2018 the two facilities employed about 750 workers, most of them Native Americans.

Seven months later, Peabody has yet to begin cleanup and restoration at Kayenta as required under the law, said Pam Eaton, a consultant with Green West Strategies, which works with the Native environmental groups in the region. The company also hasn’t cleaned up Black Mesa to the standard required by the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, Horseherder said.

“Our tribe got too dependent on Peabody,” said Vernon Masayesva, executive director of Black Mesa Trust, a Native environmental organization, and a former Hopi tribal chairman. “That’s why we’re in such a mess today.”

Although it is not producing coal currently at Kayenta, Peabody applied for a renewal of its permit at the mine as it conducts necessary monitoring and compliance work, spokeswoman Charlene Murdock said in an email. The company is committed to reclaiming the land as a vital part of the mining life cycle, she said.

The company also is providing free potable water to area residents from multiple water stands for daily use.

Restoring Aquifer

The company has disputed a 2011 study by Daniel Higgins, a former National Science Foundation research fellow who’s now a water resources scientist and consultant in Scottsdale, Arizona. Higgins said Peabody used a flawed method to measure impacts of withdrawals on the aquifer, and that measurement then informed the U.S. Office of Surface Mining’s hydrologic impact assessment of the mine.

No one was actually checking to see if the aquifer was behaving as predicted, Higgins said. Peabody’s total withdrawals exceeded the aquifer’s natural recharge by approximately 21,000 to 53,000 acre feet, he said.

Murdock said the company has engaged in more than 50 years of extensive study to ensure the aquifer is protected and managed. “The Navajo Aquifer is a deep aquifer that is naturally recharged; it is separated from the geology above it by layers of impermeable rock,” she said.

The company’s use of the water is governed through lease agreements, and company studies demonstrate there have been no adverse impacts to municipal water supplies, springs, or streams from the mine’s water use, she said.

“We believe the Navajo Aquifer is healthy and robust, which is well documented through decades of public and private study along with annual regulatory reviews by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the U.S. Geological Survey,” she said.

Horseherder disputed the company’s claim its effect on the aquifer is minimal. “Of course they’re going to say that. They don’t want to be blamed for it.”

Still, as Masayesva acknowledged, there’s some dispute as to whether Peabody’s obligation to restore the surface of the mines means it’s required to recharge the aquifer, too.

“We want that water reclaimed,” he said. “The OSM [Office of Surface Mining] is not requiring them to do it, so we’re going to make sure the federal government lives up to its trust responsibility to make sure that water gets reclaimed. It’s going to take billions of dollars to bring that water back.”

Horseherder, too, has experienced the hourlong water waits, lining up once every week and a half with a 500-gallon tank on the back of her truck “and my husband right in front of me with another 500 gallons. " One tank is for their horses and sheep, the other for home use.

“Peabody wants to walk away without reclaiming a damn drop of this precious water,” Horseherder said. “That’s not right, and that’s not going to happen. We’re going to make sure they don’t just get to walk away.”

Water Rights Bill

A potential longer-term solution surfaced recently with the Senate’s passage of the Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement Act, which would settle decades of negotiation between the Nation, the federal government, and the state of Utah over water rights for the tribe. The legislation, which awaits consideration in the House, could result in new lines with running water in more than 300 Navajo homes.

In addition to settling claims by the Nation for water rights within Utah, the bill would give the Navajos the right to take 81,500 acre-feet of water per year from Utah’s Colorado River Basin apportionment. An acre-foot is enough water to supply two typical American households for a year.

The bill also would authorize $210 million in funding for water infrastructure on the Utah portion of Navajo Nation to access the water, which would help provide clean drinking water. Additional money would come from Utah.

Navajo President Jonathan Nez said the legislation would bring desperately needed funding for drinking water infrastructure for tribal members. In lauding its passage, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the shortage of running water is contributing to the spread of Covid-19.

Asked whether the Romney bill would result in more Navajos getting running water, Deal, who drives to the well, laughed.

“There’s going to be quite a number of people living 5 or 10 miles from those lines,” he said. “And then they have to have a bathroom and a kitchen. Many of the homes we’re talking about don’t have bathrooms, so they’ll have to add them. I have a kitchen, but no running water, no sink in there.”

Deal said his weekly water run provides him with just enough for cooking, cleaning house, and washing the dishes, his hands, and his hair. But what he really wants to do is take a shower.

Before the virus spread throughout the Nation, a couple of times a week he’d drop by a tribal chapter house about 20 miles away that provides showers, he said.

“But it got infected with the virus, so it’s been shut down for the last three weeks or so. I haven’t taken a shower for quite a while.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Tripp Baltz in Denver at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at; Renee Schoof at