Sacred Water Speaks

Diné communities of Black Mesa demand the proper reclamation of land and water after 50 years of mining.

As Diné resident Nicole Horseherder walks through a grassland in Dziłíjiin, or Black Mesa, she is disgusted. A sea of pale Russian wildrye turned yellow by the summer sun surrounds her site tour of the former Black Mesa mine, in which a few people from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), Peabody Energy, and Navajo Nation are showing their reclamation efforts of the land. 

Horseherder looks around and notices there is not a single native plant. Where are the golden flowers of Navajo tea, the fragrant pinyon pine, the hardy saltbush?

“As we walked the land, I realized pretty quickly that everybody had experts, but nobody had the right experts,” Horseherder said. “There wasn’t a botanist among them. There wasn’t anybody who knew what Black Mesa flora should look like on these lands. When you go out there, you see this one type of grass from Indiana that was successful in Indiana reclamation, so it should be successful here, and that is not acceptable. I realized at that point that we have a big problem on our hands.”

Key Takeaways

Photos courtesy of Sacred Water Speaks
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A Lazy Reclamation

According to Horseherder, these experts worked for the Peabody mining company on reclamation projects in Indiana and Wyoming and the reclamation process was based on the simplified goal that the land be reclaimed for grazing purposes without specifying which animals this grassland would support. 

Although the Kayenta mine reclamation website states that it consulted with Navajo medicine men in the 1990’s to plant a range of native seeds, the variety of plants is nowhere to be found.

“What is on the website is not representative of what is happening,” Horseherder said. “This is one of our issues with the reclamation. We are not allowed to take pictures or video and Peabody has threatened to take away our cameras at one [site] when we started taking pictures. I highly recommend touring the sites first hand.”

As the director of advocacy nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ání, or “Sacred Water Speaks,” Horseherder and her team are adamant in ensuring that the OSMRE holds Peabody accountable in proper land and water reclamation so the Navajo Aquifer can recharge and Diné residents can access the deep and shallow water sources again. 

Dził Yíjiin Nanise' Project participants gather as Arnold Clifford explains how to identify the differences between plant species. Photo by Adrian Herder/Tó Nizhóní Ání
“We have lost the existence of many native plants, and we need to put pressure on these agencies and the Navajo Nation to address the water,” Horseherder said. “But we also need our own experts who know the vegetation on our land, how to prepare the plants, their names, how they’re used, and their nutritional value to different animals and human beings.”

As she has done many times before, Horseherder took matters into her own hands. She hired an intern to work with Navajo botanist Arnold Clifford to collect and catalog the plants of Black Mesa to create the Dził Yíjiin Herbarium, marking this year to be the first in The Black Mesa Plant (Dził Yíjiin Nanise’) Project.

Diné botanist Arnold Clifford of Bitł’ááh Bito’ (Beclabito), NM, pictured with a few mounted plants collected for identification. Photo by Kianna Joe/Navajo Times.

Key Takeaways

Photos courtesy of Sacred Water Speaks

Two Coal Mines Drain The Land

In the 1960s, Peabody Energy acquired the land rights to 65,000 acres in Black Mesa, and started Black Mesa mine and Kayenta mine operations in the 1970’s. Peabody pumped N-Aquifer groundwater to transport coal from the mines through a slurry line to the Mohave Generating Station 273 miles away in Laughlin, Nevada. Many residents find that the Reclamation standards set in 1990 are inadequate given the devastating effects of climate change. 

A July 2023 study by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found Peabody used 1.3 billion gallons (4.9 billion liters) of N-Aquifer groundwater each year since 1971 and that the US Department of the Interior has failed to hold Peabody responsible for its overuse of water. Many residents have witnessed wells dry up, and must drive to congested community water stations to haul water back to their homes.  

“When I was younger, we had water sources everywhere and we used the springs on a daily basis,” Horseherder said. “There’s one near my home where people in my grandfather’s generation would build cisterns so you wouldn’t have to wait for water to collect; it would already be there and pour into our handmade troughs. You and the animals could drink and you’d be on your way again.”

When Horseherder came home from college in the late 1990’s, both mines were in full operation, but she was no longer greeted with the lush vegetation and fruitful springs of her childhood. Instead, dry grass and empty crumbling washes were common sights across Black Mesa. 

In 2001, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) published an assessment of the damage caused by the groundwater mining and determined that the Navajo aquifer showed signs of serious decline after years of pumping by Peabody with suggestions to cease groundwater pumping immediately, recalibrate the models of extraction, and allows Hopi and Navajo tribal sovereignty to work together to steward their groundwater. Several elders decided to share the findings with Black Mesa residents.

Before coal mining on Black Mesa, hauling water was less pervasive as the local seeps and springs provided accessibility to water for daily needs. Photo by Adrian Herder/Tó Nizhóní Ání

Knowledge Is Power

With a three month old baby strapped to a cradleboard on her back, Horseherder prepared food, sent invites, and coordinated a meeting for residents of Big Mountain, her community in Black Mesa, about the link between the loss of the springs and the seeps to coal mining. However, the findings were too vague for the Navajo-speaking community members, who struggled to comprehend Western scientific terms in English. 

“There was a lot of talk about where do we go from here? What do we do next?,” Horseherder said. “One of our local elders said ‘You know, I think somebody needs to do this work to educate the rest of the communities, because this is not just Big Mountain water.’ Nobody volunteered and when the meeting was over, he said, ‘I think that person should be you.’”

So Nicole and her husband set to work, translating the study’s complicated mining terms into language and concepts that would be understood by Navajo-speaking and thinking residents for the ten Black Mesa communities. They toured communities, hosting presentations through a series of poster boards in the pre-Powerpoint day.

Nicole Horseherder speaks to a crowd of local community members about the reclamation concerns at the OSMRE Bond Release meeting in Forest Lake Chapter on Black Mesa. Photo by Adrian Herder/Tó Nizhóní Ání
“The NRDC data talked about the Peabody use of the groundwater at a rate of 44,00 acre feet a year on average,” Horseherder. “So what does that mean to the Diné people here? When you build a home, you have to get a homesite lease, which is one acre. So one acre with one foot of water, that's one acre foot. Most people know what a 55-gallon barrel looks like, so we said Peabody was using one 55-gallon barrel every second, every single time the second clock hand moves.”

One day before violating a seven-year-old court order to reduce the plant’s air pollution, Southern California Edison shut down the Mohave Generating Station in 2005 due to the lack of assurances for a new water and coal contract from the Tribes. The Slurry Pipeline from Black Mesa Mine came to a halt, and Peabody briefly entertained the idea of finding alternative water sources to power the transport of coal. However, Horseherder’s organizing and educating paid off: well-informed Diné residents pressured them to close it for good and the California Public Utilities Commission voted to shut it down permanently.

“That was where our work began,” Horseherder said. “Nothing has really changed in terms of how we do the work. It’s what grassroots is. Everything we have ever developed has been developed right from in-house.”

Key Takeaways

Photos courtesy of Sacred Water Speaks

A New Battle For Energy

But the closure of Peabody’s coal mines has left a space for other energy companies to try to implement new projects on Black Mesa.

GreenView, a subsidiary of Tall Grass Energy based in Colorado, has been holding meetings with chapters across Navajo Nation about implementing a 200-mile hydrogen pipeline that would run through 13 chapters to Flagstaff, AZ to feed demand for hydrogen use in the Southwest states.

Meanwhile, the company Nature & People First secured permission from a single Black Mesa community to construct the hydroelectric Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project and a pipeline that will run through Navajo Nation to transport energy to Yuma, AZ and Las Vegas, NV.

Horseherder is determined to educate residents on the full impact of these projects beyond companies’ well-packaged marketing presentations.

“These companies are making some progress because it’s the same rhetoric; there will be jobs and revenue for the Navajo people. It’s a land grab. That’s what these companies are doing even for projects they know are going to fail; they’re holding the approved land in their hands,” Horseherder said. “But the Navajo Nation has no business negotiating contracts like this because they can’t even get companies to clean up. The Nation is not there for the people. It’s just there for the fossil fuel companies.”

The project will require 150 feet of rideaway on each side of the 200 mile pipeline, which will run along the Northeastern edge of the mesa. Each corporate agreement that uses more Diné land will force the people to move their bases each year.

According to Horseherder, the Navajo Nation government should have the role of a monitoring party and be vigilant about water reclamation, but their indifference to the poor reclamation at the mines have left her disgusted.

“At this time, companies are constantly at our doorstep asking us to negotiate for rights to use our land, including new fossil fuel projects, and we’re litigating the state of Arizona for water rights because this doesn’t look sustainable to us, Horseherder said. “We let companies like Peabody off the hook to leave Black Mesa with a half-assed reclamation and water issues completely unaddressed. The Navajo Nation is a participating party and I’m just totally disgusted with them.”

Key Takeaways

Photos courtesy of Sacred Water Speaks

Ancestral Teachings For Future Generations

Horseherder is not opposed to the idea of all energy projects in the Navajo Nation. She advocates the use of the stranded access and transmission lines from the closed coal projects and mines to develop wind and solar that directly benefits the local economy and people of Navajo Nation, approximately 32% of whom live without electricity. 

She does not want to see another profitable and polluting energy project that fuels another city hundreds of miles away. She wants to see food and water sovereignty that create self-sustaining communities.

“This economic structure has taught us that growth equals prosperity by adding more highway miles, stores, people, housing, but we should be focused on how much the community can support itself,” Horseherder said. “How much of our own food can we grow? How much of our own water can we safely use and reuse, and how far is that going to take us? If you are importing water, food, and energy from somewhere else, you’ve got a problem, and you need to solve that as a community. You have to think, “What kind of burden am I putting on some other community?” That’s where this economic and energy transition needs to start.” 

Horseherder knows it will take time for a society to transition its energetic and economic ideas of success, but she is focused on education as a tool of enlightenment. Her vision is to grow and support young Diné environmental minds to be scientists, policy makers, and farmers through the lens of Diné traditional knowledge and teachings. 

“We have done a great disservice to our future generations by making them think that the life out there is off the reservation and the only way to make a living is to burn something and the only way to enjoy life is to consume,” Horseherder said. “That is so contrary to our ancestors’ way of teaching. Through the organization, I hope to encourage people to look at our traditional ecological knowledge and find the answers to our current problems in that way.”
Nicole Horseherder, pictured at her home in Black Mesa, has been recognized by the Heinz Family Foundation for her work in environmental justice. Photo by Joshua Franzos/The Heinz Award

Ancestral Diné teachings prioritize caring for one’s emotional wellbeing, avoiding material excess and waste, and giving gratitude to the earth. These lessons guide how Horseherder interacts with the world around her and how she raises her children to live. 

“The human being is a representation of the universe: Mother Earth, Father Sky, and everything in between. So what we do to the environment, we do to ourselves, and that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Horseherder said. “As you go through life, these teachings can be deeper still. That’s why we have elders as mentors. They have experience and can’t just be dismissed. As older people, we have the responsibility to pass it along. It takes a lifetime to learn how to exist in a peaceful and happy way on this earth.”

Horseherder believes everyone can take a stand for the land and the water near their own homes, but Sacred Water Speaks is always open to receiving supporters who want to take a stand for the water of the Diné. 

”At the very least, each person can commit to consuming less,  recycling more, being less wasteful, reducing their carbon footprint, to help protect sacred places. A lot of these parks and rec places were once places of offering, hunting grounds, where our wildlife went to  have their young, to spend the winter, so the protection of these places is really important,” Horseherder said. “Most of all, any time we’re organizing to take direct action, they can come and stand by us and send their resources and increase our numbers and help us fight the fight. Fighting in one corner and community helps everyone.” 

Key Takeaways

Photos courtesy of Sacred Water Speaks