"Black Mesa Area Near Kayenta, Arizona" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

“Water Is Life:” Navajo Nation Fights Serial Entrepreneur’s Hydropower Plant

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The Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project (BMPSP) has been proposed by Nature & People First as an answer to the closure of the Navajo Generating Station. Navajo Nation environmentalists aren’t so quick to swap one huge construction project for another and are opposing a massive hydropower project they claim will adversely affect the largest land area held by Indigenous American peoples in the US.

The Nature & People First hydropower company was founded by CEO Denis Payre, a venture capitalist who once fled France in order to avoid paying a tax bill of nearly $2.5 million. Payre refers to himself as a “serial entrepreneur.” He described the fit for the Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project:

“There’s a huge need in the Southwest for pump storage solutions to help deal with the intermittency of renewable energies. Solar and wind are creating a lot of instability in the grid, and, so, there is a need for projects of this nature.”

Pumped storage hydropower technology is a type of utility scale battery invented over 100 years ago to store electricity. Nature & People First wants to build 3 pumped storage projects along the northeastern edge of Black Mesa. The company describes the project’s infrastructure as consisting of 2 reservoirs that can hold water, separated by natural elevation change.

  • The project has about 1,500 feet of elevation change with one reservoir on Black Mesa and the other reservoir at the base of Black Mesa.
  • The closed-loop project cycles water from the base of the mesa to the top of the mesa and then back down to the base of the mesa.
  • The reservoirs are connected by a pipe, also referred to as a tunnel or penstock.
  • When electricity is needed, such as when energy prices are low, water is pumped back uphill, forming a closed-loop system that stores and releases power, like a battery.

The US Department of Energy concurs that hydropower can be a key player in a clean energy grid. They also admit that a new hydropower system “is a substantial investment that requires certain geographic features to create the upper and lower reservoirs and a design that can maximize energy storage with minimal environmental impact.”

The hydropower project is awaiting approval by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for preliminary permits.

Water Depletion Feared by Navajo Nation

Opposition to the Black Mesa Pumped Storage Project, #NoBMPSP, started in response to concerns over how many resources the project would use and the lack of consultation with local communities before the preliminary permit filings. The hydropower company, however, says that their organization “has met and made presentations to Navajo Nation leaders, Chapter leaders, and members and people located in and near the project area.”

In July, 2023, Tó Nizhóní Ání, Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, and the Center for Biological Diversity submitted resolutions from several Navajo Nation chapters to the Ferc opposing the 3 preliminary permit applications filed by Nature and People First on Navajo Nation land in the Black Mesa area. In sum, 19 Navajo Nation chapters have filed resolutions opposing the project.

The hydropower project has incited fears over water use in an area already struggling with water accessibility issues. Adrian Herder of Tó Nizhóní Ání explains, “In their application, they mentioned Black Mesa groundwater, and, so, that was already a concern for us, given that we already are struggling with water availability in our communities.”

Tó Nizhóní Ání is a Diné-led non-profit on the Navajo Reservation in northeast Arizona. Its name translates to “Sacred Water Speaks.” Tó Nizhóní Án originates from the Big Mountain community on Black Mesa; in 2005, the non-profit led efforts to end the industrial use of the Navajo Aquifer, which is Black Mesa’s only source of potable water. Today, Tó Nizhóní Ání continues to work to protect the region’s water while leading community transition away from fossil fuels.

Nature & People First says the water for the project will be sourced from the extensive C Aquifer, boasting a capacity of 400 million acre-feet. “This aquifer spans well beyond the Navajo Nation’s borders,” their website states, “covering an area exceeding 27,000 square miles. It is not exclusive to the Navajo Nation.”

Perhaps the contraction comes with the phrase Nature & People First embraced: “made presentations.” This connotes a top/ down, business first approach with limited, perfunctory local knowledge infusion. As an article in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment outlines, the varied contributions of Indigenous knowledge stem from long periods of observation, interaction, and experimentation with species, ecosystems, and ecosystem processes. Indigenous knowledge is millennia-long in its application to environmental management, yet much non-Indigenous or western management is just starting to consider it.

A “motion to intervene” letter states:

“It appears the Applicant may have contacted local chapters and the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President but failed to make necessary contact with the appropriate regulatory groups within the Navajo Nation Government… The project application may have failed to address Endangered Species and Biological Clearances (Navajo Natural Heritage Program), land-use permitting (General Land Development Department), water use permitting (Department of Water Resources) or cultural resources (Heritage and Historic Preservation Department).”

Payre claims opponents have not correctly identified the scope of the proposal, and he doesn’t understand the criticism of the project.  “I think people are realizing that they’re not reasonable, and that they’re essentially opposing a very reasonable clean energy project.”

According to the Navajo Nation campaign, land, water, wildlife, plants, and cultural resources are at stake. The hydropower project would :

  • require 126 trillion gallons of water (450,000 acre-feet), 3 times the water withdrawals from 50 years of coal mining;
  • industrialize 30 to 40 miles of land with reservoirs, pump stations, electric lines, and generators:
  • draw upon Black Mesa groundwater and/or the Colorado River and San Juan River through 9 reservoirs totaling 35,720 acres; and,
  • destroy the wildlife habitats of the endangered Mexican spotted owls, Navajo sedge, and Colorado pikeminnows.

“They are pretty intent on pushing this project through somehow, someway, even though they don’t have a good background knowledge on the resources they are trying to secure,” said Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of Tó Nizhóní Ání.

“People who live here don’t want these projects, and we don’t want more damage from industrial energy development to the land and aquifers that we depend on,” said Adrian Herder of Tó Nizhóní Ání, as quoted by the Guardian. “Asking for federal approvals before the consent of Black Mesa’s communities is the height of arrogance. It tells us the developer is not interested in engaging the communities that would be impacted by this project.”

Final Thoughts about the Black Mesa Hydropower Project

Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo Nest is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden, who grew up on the Columbia River Gorge. The fictional Chief watched his people’s livelihood destroyed as dam construction blocked fish migration and dramatically disrupted salmon spawning. Indian fishing sites at and near Celilo Falls were inundated by the dam’s reservoir, and Chief never recovers.

Life mirrors art again as another Big Industrial Idea attempts to profit from natural resources.

The reality is that pumped hydro installations are typically located some distance from the places where most electricity is needed. That means there needs to be a high voltage transmission line linking them to population and commercial centers. Those links are quite expensive to construct and getting permission to connect them to the larger electrical grid can be a challenge.

It took 14 years for the Nant de Drance pumped hydro installation in Switzerland to be completed and come into operation.

Two other proposed dam project proposals on the Little Colorado River were withdrawn in response to opposition urging FERC to deny preliminary permit applications.

These projects may seem a good fit to offset solar and wind intermittency, but it takes a close eye to determine if the consequences of the vast construction involved are worth it in the long run.


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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