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Bringing Back Desert Springs

Attuned to their arid land, the Hopi raised abundant crops for hundreds of years, stewarding the small springs they considered sacred. Now, 35 years after a massive coal mine began using their water, the springs are drying up.

 A spring sacred to the Hopi is drying up. Three-quarters of the springs in the region where Vernon Masayesva grew up are now dry.

In the midst of the worst drought to hit Arizona's Painted Desert in 1,400 years, crops there are stunted and suffering. Navajo-, Anglo-, and Hispanic-owned farms alike are not doing well. But Victor Masayesva's dozen acres of rainfed blue corn on Black Mesa are tasseling out and maturing full ears. His beans, squashes, melons, and other vegetables look just as lush.

Masayesva is a Hopi elder who carries on ancient farming traditions. His native crops are exquisitely adapted to the prevailing conditions of the Painted Desert. His Hopi seeds can be planted six to 10 inches down in the sandy soil, where hidden layers of silt cake up with residual moisture from the winter. Hopi corn seedlings have sturdy, rapidly elongating shoots that emerge from soil depths twice as fast as commercial sweet corns. Their roots grow deeper and faster than those of any commercial corn with which they have been compared, buffering seedlings from the stresses of early season droughts. In short, Masayesva plants crops that fit their peculiar environment, rather than remaking the environment to pamper a water-thirsty crop.

When Hopi elders say Patuwaqatsi, “water is life,” it is not a cliché, but a fact of life. “Water is not a commodity to be bought, sold or wasted … Water is sacred, especially in the Black Mesa region where water is key to our survival,” explains Leonard Selestewa, the president of Black Mesa Trust. Leonard and other Hopi leaders make these pronouncements as natural resource managers who know how to make the best of the meager moisture hidden in pockets within the stretch of the Painted Desert they call home. Increasingly, however, they repeat these ancient aphorisms cognizant that their land is now drier than it has been within the collective memory of their community.

Climatologists and biologists who study tree rings agree with the Hopi elders. It appears that the canyon country of the Colorado Plateau is currently suffering from the most prolonged, severe drought in 1,400 years. Not only has rainfall been unusually spotty for five years, but winter snows have melted quickly, wildfires have ravaged upland watersheds, and most freshwater springs have all but dried up for good.

The Hopi do not interpret these indicators of drought merely as physical changes in the landscape, but also as signs of an imbalance between humankind and the rest of the natural world. Even during the worst of other periods of limited rainfall, a trickle of water still dripped from Hopi springs. Today they ebb because of the pumping of the Navajo aquifer, the sole source of drinking water to the villages on the Hopi Reservation, and to many ranches on the Navajo reservation as well. It has also been drawn upon for the past 35 years by the Peabody Coal company, which has pulled as much as 1.3 billion gallons out of the ground annually to transport coal slurry 273 miles by pipeline to the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, Nevada. This process uses 4,400 acre-feet of water per day simply as a transport mechanism. In a bizarre cycle, the coal the water transports feeds the Mohave Station, built to generate the electricity needed to draw Colorado River water over the mountains to southern California. Now the station also powers the growing cities of California, Arizona, and Nevada.

That power is cheap to urban residents because the terms of Peabody's lease are highly favorable to the company. In the 1960s, the Hopi granted Peabody the lease to extract Black Mesa's coal and water under pressure from the federal government. It was later revealed the tribe was represented by a lawyer who was also working for Peabody. Faced with this dark history, Victor Masayesva's son Vernon founded the Black Mesa Trust to fight Peabody's pumping of Hopi water and the pollution of Hopi land.

Peabody claims that its groundwater pumping has little to do with springs drying up—which it attributes instead to domestic uses and the drought itself. But many scientists and Native American elders think otherwise. Scientists cite the effects of the pumping on well and spring drawdowns and on ground subsidence in the area around Peabody's wells compared to other drought-stricken sites nearby. Hopi elders see long-term consequences, as they explain in a statement regarding the groundwater pumping associated with Peabody's mines:
“Water under the ground has much to do with the rain clouds. Everything depends upon the proper balance being maintained … Drawing huge amounts of water from beneath Black Mesa in connection with strip mining will destroy the harmony… Should this happen, our lands will shake like a Hopi rattle: land will sink, land will dry up, plants will not grow, our corn will not yield and animals will die …”

Vernon Masayesva explains to me the significance of springs in Hopi cosmology: “Springs are the breathing holes between the Fourth World that we currently live in, and the earlier worlds we emerged from. What happens to springs affects our future as a people.”

Unfortunately, Vernon knows all too well what is happening to these breathing holes. Since he was a child growing up on a farm along the upper reaches of Oraibi Wash, more than three-quarters of the springs within walking distance have dried up, and the water depth in wells has decreased by 100 feet or more. The rate of their loss, Vernon contends, has accelerated since Peabody Coal began pumping from the Navajo Aquifer around 1970. He refers to this trend by the Hopi term paatski, “the tearing up of water.”

Vernon once took me to the edge of a sacred spring that lies just below Sipaulovi village on Second Mesa. It was the spring recorded in historic photos included in the recent film In the Light of Reverence about the desecration of sacred sites throughout the West. In those photos from a century ago, a stone-lined reservoir the volume of an Olympic-sized swimming pool is shown much as it was during Vernon's youth, filled to the brim. As we peered over its edge a few months ago, we could see only a bathtub-sized puddle of water dozens of feet below us (see photo page 40). A spring that the Hopi sustainably used for centuries has been depleted by just three decades of groundwater pumping.

The persistence of Hopi farming traditions has been made more difficult by the dying of springs, of protective cottonwoods on field edges, and of wetlands that previously buffered Hopi fields from infrequent floods. Their traditions persist, nevertheless, and there is now hope that Peabody's slurry line and pumping will be stopped. A coalition of environmental groups won a lawsuit against the Mohave Generation Station over its air pollution, which contaminates the Grand Canyon. Faced with the high costs of pollution-contol upgrades required by the court and strong lobbying by the Hopi and Navajo, the Mohave Generation Station may now be closed by regulatory agencies. The pipeline, too, requires costly repairs; dozens of leaks over the last few years have spilled black sludge on the desert and the pipeline company has been fined repeatedly by the Environmental Protection Agency. If Black Mesa Trust can succeed in pressing Peabody to end its use of 4,400 acre-feet of Navajo Aquifer water per day, the Hopi will have won one more battle in the fight to keep their springs and farming traditions alive.

Should they win this victory, Vernon Masayesva and Leonard Selestewa know how they want to shift their efforts: to teaching more Hopi and non-Hopi how to grow food with traditional water-conserving techniques. They envision a “learning plaza” where Hopi elders can teach youth how to live in harmony with the Colorado Plateau. If this vision comes to fruition, it will draw on the remarkable skills and talents of elders like Victor Masayesva, Senior, who was honored regionally on October 18 as one of the true culture-bearers of sustainable agricultural traditions on the Colorado Plateau. In addition to honoring both Hopi and Navajo farmers, Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments is also assisting the Hopi village of Sipaulovi in restoring one traditional spring, and renovating its associated traditional fields and peach orchards, which can serve as teaching sites for youth. Last spring the Center arranged for the largest native seed repatriation in history, returning dozens of drought-adapted seeds hidden in government and non-profit seed storage labs back to the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, where a tribal seed bank has been established. Let us hope that these seeds live on, and show us the way to live in harmony with the desert.


Black Mesa Trust can be reached at PO Box 30456, Flagstaff, Arizona 86003-0456. Gary Nabhan is a scientific advisor of the Trust and director of the Center for Sustainable Environments, www.environment.nau.edu.

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