An energy company wants to build hydropower projects on the Navajo Nation. Not everyone is on board
Percy Deal, a member of the Navajo Nation, is looking up at a pale stripe of sandstone that stands out against the rim of Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona. Juniper trees speckle the steep cliffsides facing the site of a proposed hydropower project.
“All you have to do is look around here,” Deal said. “This is a very beautiful land.”
The hydropower company Nature and People First applied for preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) last year to investigate the possibility of building three pumped water storage projects on and below Black Mesa to generate electricity for nearby cities like Phoenix and Tucson. Deal and other Black Mesa residents are worried that the project could do damage to land and water that has ecological and cultural significance to both the Navajo and Hopi tribes.
“There are many sacred areas up there where our ancestors would go to pray, and would go to visit with their Creator,” he said.
Deal is a community liaison for the Navajo nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ání, which works to protect water sources in the region. He said Nature and People First and its CEO haven’t done enough to involve nearby communities in its plans.
“It seems like from his perspective, his project is going to improve what's here,” Deal said. “But his project is going to destroy what’s here.”
In July, environmental groups filed resolutions with FERC from 18 Navajo chapter houses and agencies that oppose the projects.
They’re concerned about potential overuse of groundwater underneath the Black Mesa region, which is still reeling from the environmental consequences of decades of extractive coal strip mining.
Pumped water storage projects like this one generate energy by letting water flow downhill from high-elevation reservoirs through a tunnel, turning a turbine as it travels to reservoirs at lower elevations.
Then, when energy prices are low, water is pumped back uphill, forming a closed-loop system that stores and releases power, like a battery.
If all three of the projects are built as planned, nine reservoirs would generate power in the region, stretching nearly 40 miles across the Navajo Nation.
“There's a huge need in the Southwest for pump storage solutions to help deal with the intermittency of renewable energies,” said Denis Payre, CEO of Nature and People First. “Solar and wind are creating a lot of instability in the grid, and so there is a need for projects of this nature.”
Nature and People First listed the Colorado and San Juan rivers and two local sources under Black Mesa as potential options to fill and recharge its reservoirs.
However, there are a number of legal and logistical hurdles in the way of those options, like a recent Supreme Court ruling that determined the federal government has no duty to help the Navajo Nation access water from the Colorado River.
Payre said the company is now hoping to use groundwater from the Coconino aquifer, larger than the nearby Navajo aquifer, for the projects.
Not everyone in the region opposes the projects. The Chilchinbeto Chapter, one of the communities where the reservoirs would be located, has passed resolutions supporting them.
“Chilchinbeto does not have any kind of economic stand,” said Paul Madson, the chapter president. “So we have to start developing something to develop an economy for the nation, and to also develop an investment into the water industry.”
Madson said the projects could provide much-needed jobs during and after their construction and improve infrastructure in the area.
“What we were in the years before, we cannot live that way anymore,” he said. “We have to change as a nation. The economy is going to be driving us no matter where we go.”
Heather Tanana, a Navajo citizen and an attorney who specializes in water policy in the West, said it appears Nature and People First didn’t involve some of the communities who would be impacted by the projects from the beginning.
“It’s kind of like an afterthought,” Tanana said. “And we have a long history of tribal communities being an afterthought in energy development.”
Tanana said there’s a legacy of Colorado River basin tribal communities being left out of conversations about water that they have a legal right to use.
“I think we need a flip of that,” she said.“Where, at the beginning, when they’re scoping out lands and they realize (they) want to do it on the reservation, talking with the community at that stage and involving them in the decision-making process.”
For Deal, with the Navajo nonprofit focused on defending water, the importance of preserving the flora and fauna of Black Mesa, and the water underneath it, is the bottom line.
“You take something that is very precious to a group of (the) population up here, to do something for another population that is hundreds of miles away to give them the energy,” he said.“There’s no balance in that. Absolutely none.”
Payre and Nature and People First have also submitted permits for similar projects on the Navajo Nation in addition to Black Mesa, including near Lukachukai, about an hour away.
The Navajo Nation Department of Justice has requested consultation with FERC before action is taken on the preliminary permits.
Even if Nature and People First is granted them, the company said it’s still at least seven years away from finishing construction.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of water in the West, produced by KSJD, distributed by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.
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