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Controversial Hydropower Project Raises Concerns Over Ecological and Cultural Significance

Percy Deal, a member of the Navajo Nation, stands beneath the towering cliffs of Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona, contemplating the potential consequences of a proposed hydropower project. The company behind the project, Nature and People First, aims to construct three pumped water storage projects on and below Black Mesa, generating electricity for cities such as Phoenix and Tucson. However, this endeavor has sparked concerns among Black Mesa residents, particularly those of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, who fear that the project could irreversibly damage the land and water that hold profound ecological and cultural significance.

The project has received preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), but many local community members believe that Nature and People First has not adequately involved nearby communities in its plans. Percy Deal, a community liaison for the Navajo nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ání, which works to protect the region’s water sources, emphasizes the importance of preserving the sacred areas that hold ancestral significance for the tribes. Deal warns that while the CEO of Nature and People First may believe the project will improve the region, it could, in fact, destroy the very essence of what makes Black Mesa exceptional.

In July, environmental groups filed resolutions opposing the projects, gathering support from 18 Navajo chapter houses and agencies. One of the major concerns is the potential overuse of groundwater in the Black Mesa area, which has already suffered extensively from the environmental repercussions of past coal strip mining activities.

Pumped water storage projects, like the one proposed for Black Mesa, function by allowing water to flow downhill from high-elevation reservoirs through tunnels, subsequently turning turbines as it moves towards lower-elevation reservoirs. This movement of water serves as a means of storing and releasing power, akin to a battery. If all three projects materialize as planned, nine reservoirs will generate power across a span of nearly 40 miles on the Navajo Nation.

Denis Payre, the CEO of Nature and People First, argues that there is a genuine need for pump storage solutions in the Southwest due to the intermittent nature of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. However, opponents of the project question the company’s proposed water sources, including the Colorado and San Juan rivers and local sources under Black Mesa, particularly in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling stating that the federal government is not obligated to assist the Navajo Nation in accessing Colorado River water.

While not all communities in the region are opposed to the hydropower projects, with the Chilchinbeto Chapter expressing support, the concerns raised by local environmental groups and residents highlight the complex challenges associated with balancing economic development, energy needs, and the preservation of cultural and ecological heritage.


What is a pumped water storage project?

A pumped water storage project is a method of generating energy by allowing water to flow from high-elevation reservoirs through tunnels, which turns turbines and produces electricity. The water is then pumped back uphill during periods of low energy demand, effectively functioning as a closed-loop system that stores and releases power.

Why are residents concerned about the proposed hydropower project on Black Mesa?

Residents, especially those from the Navajo and Hopi tribes, are worried about the potential damage the hydropower project could cause to the land and water on Black Mesa. The area holds ecological and cultural significance and contains sacred sites where ancestral rituals took place. The project’s impact on groundwater usage and its association with past extractive mining activities further fuel concerns.

What are the proposed water sources for the project?

Originally, Nature and People First listed the Colorado and San Juan rivers, as well as local sources under Black Mesa, as potential water sources for the project. However, due to legal and logistical complications, such as a recent Supreme Court ruling and the lack of governmental obligations to assist the Navajo Nation in accessing Colorado River water, the company is now considering using groundwater from the Coconino aquifer instead.

By Terence West

Terence West is a distinguished author and analyst specializing in the dynamics of energy infrastructure and its impact on American cities. His writings delve into the challenges and opportunities presented by the transition to renewable energy sources in urban settings. West's work is characterized by a deep understanding of both the technical and socio-economic aspects of urban energy systems. His insightful commentary on how cities can adapt to and benefit from emerging energy technologies has made him a respected voice in the discourse on sustainable urban development and energy policy in the United States.