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Hopi Tribe Sues Arizona Water Agency to Enforce Power Contract

Tribal officials want the Central Arizona Water Conservation District to continue purchasing power from the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station, but the water district hopes to use cheaper and cleaner sources to pump Colorado River water.

Written by Debra Utacia Krol Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, is scheduled to close when its lease expires in 2019 unless a new owner is willing to buy the plant.Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Despairing over the impending loss of hundreds of jobs and 85 percent of its governmental revenue, the Hopi Tribe recently sued the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) for not honoring its contract to purchase power from the Navajo Generating Station until it pays back the federal loan used to build the station and construct the 336 mile-long Central Arizona Project (CAP) canal. The tribe relies on royalties from the coal sold to the plant to generate income and jobs.

The water agency wants out of the contract in order to purchase cheaper power from other sources. CAWCD operates the Central Arizona Project, which provides 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to a variety of customers throughout the state and the water agency uses power from the plant to run the pumps that deliver water from the Colorado River to reservoirs and water users.

The tribe was joined in the lawsuit – filed on May 1 in the U.S. District Court in Phoenix – by the United Mine Workers and Peabody Energy, owner of Kayenta Mine, which supplies the plant with coal.

The site for the Navajo Generating Station, which generates 2,250 megawatts for utility companies in the Southwest, was negotiated by the Bureau of Land Management and the Navajo Nation and opened in 1974. The coal-fired plant located near the town of Page, Arizona, is scheduled to cease operations at the end of 2019 when the current lease expires, although there is an effort to entice new buyers. The decision was announced by the plant’s owners, which include the Bureau of Land Management and four utilities (the Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., NV Energy and Tucson Electric Power), in February 2017. Cheaper and cleaner natural gas have made coal economically less viable.

Some activists are also hoping the plant closes next year to save the tribes’ shrinking water supply. The mine depends on water from the Navajo aquifer (N-aquifer) for its operations.

CAP has been paying the $1 billion debt incurred in constructing the canal that conveys water to its customers. The utility purchases power from the Navajo Generating Station under the terms of its contract, and then sells what it doesn’t use on the open market. By purchasing power generated by less expensive means, such as natural gas-powered plants, CAP calculates a projected 47 percent saving on delivery rates, as it reported to stakeholders in April. CAP representative DeEtte Person said via email that, “the CAP Board is doing what it must do to responsibly meet its future water delivery commitments.”

But some Hopi officials are concerned about the economic impacts of closing the plant and the reciprocal effect on the mine.

Hopi chair Timothy Nuvangyaoma speaks at a press conference announcing a new lawsuit against the water agency that runs the Central Arizona Project on May 1, 2018. (Debra Krol)

“The Hopi are deeply concerned that the legally binding agreements we struck decades ago are being ignored to the detriment of our families and our culture,” said Hopi tribal chair Timothy Nuvangyaoma. “Without revenues from the Kayenta Mine, the Hopi Tribe will face severe curtailment of government functions and we will be forced to begin laying off hundreds of our own Hopi people. Without the revenues from the mine, we face a long, difficult economic journey.” The mine is located on Black Mesa, which lies in both the Hopi and Navajo reservations.

Nuvangyaoma added that services ranging from law enforcement to senior services would have to be cut without the estimated $18 million in royalties paid by Peabody – some 85 percent of the tribe’s operating budget. The neighboring Navajo Nation would lose 22 percent of its budget as well as 750 well-paid jobs from the mine and the coal plant. And that doesn’t include 350 Hopis who would lose government jobs from budget impacts.

Not everyone from the tribes are against the plant closure, however.

Activists from both tribes have applauded the planned closure, due to the plant’s impact on the region’s water supplies. Peabody Energy, the sole provider of coal to the power plant, uses about 1,236 acre-feet of groundwater from the Navajo aquifer each year in the mining process. The activists would like to see that figure drop to zero, saving the water for residential and agricultural use.

Although water usage by the mine has greatly decreased after the 2003 closure of another generating station in Nevada, when groundwater levels dropped up to 72ft, the aquifer has not recovered. A 2017 study by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Navajo Nation determined that from 2013 to 2015, groundwater levels dropped anywhere from 2ft to 46ft on the two reservations.

“Peabody mines have caused a drastic depletion of pristine N-aquifer water,” said Lawrence Hamana, a grassroots activist and Hopi Tribe member. Without water, Hamana says, the two tribes will face not only an economic but a cultural disaster. “That water sustains the existence and livelihoods of the Hopi and Navajo people residing above or adjacent to the aquifer,” he said.

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