2012-11-15 09:00:00

Pending EPA Decision Threatens Water Rights for Az. Tribe

PAGE, Ariz. — For most, a simple turn of a knob is all it takes to have the most essential substance for life, water, rushing into our homes. We cook with it, wash with it and, of course, drink it.

But how does the water get from a natural source, like the Colorado River, to a home hundreds of miles away? It must be pumped, and pumping requires electricity.

The Navajo Generating Station (NGS), made up of three coal-fire units, produces 95 percent of the electricity needed to pump water through the Central Arizona Project Canal beginning in Lake Havasu and ending south of Tucson. Located on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Page, Arizona, it produces 2,250 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 3 million homes.

The Gila River Indian Community depends on energy from NGS to fund the historic Water Rights Settlement GRIC won in 2004. The settlement gave the Community 311,800 acre-feet of water — over 101 billion gallons — per year from the Central Arizona Project (CAP) to replace the water lost from the Gila River. It also subsidizes the Community’s cost of water, making it about half as cheap, and provides funding for infrastructure development, like the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants to reign in nitrogen oxide emissions from NGS, which contribute to a haze around the region near the Grand Canyon. A ruling in the near future could require NGS to add the Best Available Retrofit Technology (BART), part of a control system that NGS says will cost $1.2 billion.

If the EPA requires the entirety of that new control system to be put in place, that cost would be passed on to the consumer, increasing the cost of energy.

Gila River, as the single largest customer of CAP water, would be paying a disproportionate share of the environmental controls, said GRIC attorney Jason T. Hauter. The water from the 2004 settlement, which is intended for agricultural use once projects like the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project are completed, would then become too expensive to use.

Hauter said it would be akin to the federal government “stealing our water all over again.”

“We should not be the one that’s expected to pick up the bill on this one,” Hauter said.

Gila River is not opposed to stricter environmental emissions guidelines for NGS, Hauter said. Currently, the EPA regulates three pollutants at NGS: particulate matter, or fly ash, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. Paul Ostupak, environmental and safety manager at NGS, said the plant has always been within EPA guidelines.

“We’ve always been in compliance with the emission limits here,” Ostupak said. The upcoming EPA ruling will likely decrease the acceptable level of nitrogen oxides, which would force NGS to implement the new control systems to continue to operate.

In addition to NGS, there is also concern about environmental pollution caused by the Black Mesa Coalmine in Kayenta, which feeds coal directly to the power plant. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation leases these two lands from the Navajo Nation. The lease expires in 2019, and new environmental regulations will have a direct impact on whether the lease is renewed.

Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, leads an environmental protection group that is organizing against pollution on the Navajo and Hopi nations. Gearon recognizes that while NGS and the Black Mesa Coalmine provide jobs to hundreds of Navajo, it comes at a cost to human health, nature and culture.

“We are economically dependent on our own cultural destruction because of this fossil fuel-based system,” Gearon said. “By trying to change what’s happening, that’s part of saving our culture too.”

The Black Mesa Water Coalition is also working to gather support within the Navajo tribal government to transition away from coal and into renewable energy sources, like solar power. The group knows it won’t happen overnight but with the 2019 deadline approaching, the time to plan for change is now.

“We’re not trying to shut everything down tomorrow,” Gearon said. “We understand that there has to be a transition, a way to get from here to there in a way that will not harm many people.”

Despite its vested interest in keeping NGS operating, GRIC does not want to compromise the sovereignty or health of the Navajo Nation in the process. Hauter agrees with an eventual transition.

“We totally recognize and sympathize with those health concerns,” Hauter said. “We wouldn’t necessarily want those issues in our backyard. But there needs to be a glide path away from it, not just an action to shut the thing down right now.”

The Community has tried to take a leadership role to find a viable solution that would lessen GRIC’s reliance on NGS. They have proposed a concept for a 20-megawatt solar facility on GRIC land that would help offset the potential increased energy costs coming from stricter NGS environmental regulation. That plan is in its early phases but will take more federal interest and involvement if it is to actually happen.

“There’s no easy solution to this,” Hauter said. “This is a hard, hard dilemma.”

This is part one of a two part series on the environmental impact of Arizona's Navajo Generating Station on the health of local tribes. The story was written under an environmental fellowship reporting program organized by New America Media and funded by the Mize Family Foundation to support coverage of environmental health in the Southwest.

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