Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

July 19, 2023

Navajos on Black Mesa Oppose New Development Targeting Aquifers

 18 Navajo Chapters Oppose Huge Pumped Storage Projects Threatening Arizona’s Black Mesa

Coalition Statement, Censored News, July 19, 2023

BLACK MESA, Arizona — Tó Nizhóní Ání, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted resolutions to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission today from Navajo chapters and agencies opposing three pumped storage projects on the Navajo Nation’s Black Mesa, southeast of Kayenta. A total of 18 chapters and agencies have passed resolutions opposing the projects.

“People who live here don’t want these projects, and we don’t want more damage from industrial energy development to the land and aquifers that we depend on,” said Adrian Herder of Tó Nizhóní Ání. “Asking for federal approvals before the consent of Black Mesa’s communities is the height of arrogance. It tells us the developer is not interested in engaging the communities that would be impacted by this project.”

The resolutions show widespread local opposition to the Black Mesa north, east and south pumped storage projects. They cite the projects’ potential harm to water resources, traditional land uses and wildlife, and the developer’s failure to obtain consent from local communities before seeking federal approval.

“We have concerns for the impact on the animals that we live with because as they destroyed Black Mesa with their strip mining, all the wildlife that used to be in the area moved to the northern edge of Black Mesa. That’s why we considered Black Mesa’s northern edge as the refuge area,” said Herb Yazzie, a Black Mesa resident and retired chief justice of the Navajo Nation whose interviews describe his opposition to the proposals. “That’s one of the reasons why we object so strenuously against the Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project; it is because if they have their way, they’re going to destroy that refuge area with their infrastructure.”

“We have to be smarter than these outside developers,” said Delores Wilson-Aguirre of Save the Confluence. “They come onto the Nation trying to sell their businesses to exploit us. The hydroelectric company Nature & People First is no different. They say they will work with the Navajo Nation by partnering with chapters and local people, promising jobs, infrastructure, water, etc. It’s an experience the Nation has with outside developers, and it always ends in broken promises.”

The projects would span nearly 40 linear miles on Black Mesa’s northeastern escarpment. They would pump water uphill to newly constructed reservoirs atop Black Mesa when electricity prices are low and generate electricity and revenue from return flows to reservoirs below the mesa when prices are higher. 

“These massive, proposed projects would cause major disruption and displacement to Diné communities, ecosystems, and environment. Any project that would threaten and harm aquifers, wells, and springs must be heavily scrutinized,” said Robyn Jackson of Diné C.A.R.E. “We support the overwhelming response from chapters in the Black Mesa region who have firmly stated their opposition to these proposed hydro pump storage projects.”

The projects propose eight new reservoirs across 38,000 acres. Filling them would require 450,000 acre-feet of water, an enormous share of the remaining Colorado River flows. Even under the best-case scenario, up to 8,000 acre-feet would be lost to evaporation each year, which is nearly double the rate of aquifer depletion from historical coal extraction. The applications list the aquifers beneath Black Mesa and the Colorado and San Juan rivers as potential water sources but provide no evidence of availability or legal rights to those sources.

“The commission’s failure to consult with local communities about these projects is a breathtaking mockery of the Biden administration’s environmental justice efforts,” said Taylor McKinnon, Southwest director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “These projects would devastate precious land and water, bringing untold harm to the plants, animals and people who rely on them. The commission should heed overwhelming community opposition and reject these projects now.” 

The pumped storage projects would worsen problems caused by decades of coal extraction, which depleted Black Mesa aquifers and their connected seeps and springs. The Colorado and San Juan rivers are overallocated, and water use is being curtailed as climate change and drought further strain river flows. The already stressed aquifers and rivers provide water for people and endangered species like Navajo sedge and Colorado pikeminnows.

Tribal and environmental groups filed motions in January urging the commission to deny preliminary permit applications for all three projects. The motions said the projects would destroy land, displace people, further deplete rivers and aquifers, and destroy pre-historic sites and habitat for endangered species like the Mexican spotted owl. More than 5,000 people have also written to the commission in opposition.

Energy speculators have proposed several pumped storage projects in Arizona in recent years, including three projects along the Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and one project on the San Francisco River near the Arizona-New Mexico border. All but one of these projects has been canceled or withdrawn following widespread Tribal and public opposition.


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