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Tainted Desert

When the modern infrastructure of the American West was being constructed in the mid-20th century, it was based on a vision consistent with the contemporary zeitgeist of American exceptionalism and lingering Manifest Destiny (the idea that a Protestant God had ordained white, mostly male Americans to expand westward to conquer and subdue the indigenous people and the “wilderness” they inhabited).

The historical bet implied by planting sprawling cities, vast agricultural areas, and enormous military and industrial installations in Southern California, the intermontane desert highlands and Sonoran desert of Arizona, and the Great Basin of Nevada was that humanity's dominion over nature in these arid regions would expand indefinitely, and that artificial importation of water would sustain the expansion.

The US Bureau of Reclamation’s head from 1959-69, Floyd Dominy, put it like this: “I was a crusader for the development of water. I was The Messiah. I was the evangelist who went out and argued persuasively for the harness of water for the benefit of people.”

From the 1930s to the 1970s, the Messianic vision led federal and state agencies to construct a staggering infrastructure of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, canals, aqueducts, gates, tunnels, and other installations that are all about controlling where water goes and who receives it. Perhaps no other area of equivalent size on earth has altered its watersheds as much.

Now, climate change has given the specter of water scarcity a terrifying new form. California has just been parched by the worst three-year drought, in terms of lack of soil moisture, in at least 1,200 years, according to a recent tree-ring study by University of Minnesota researchers. Greater water shortages will inevitably occur in the future.

Given the sheer number of people involved, this sort of situation has never occurred on the same scale. There are, however, historical precedents. Faust labored to tame the threatening waters, to create new land by “bringing the earth back to itself.” And he succeeded — but at a price. How will the West reckon with the likely unraveling of its Faustian water bargain?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provided part of the answer on Dec. 8th, when it released an official report colored by denial, which disavows that California's unprecedented drought was caused by climate change. Using supercomputers at NOAA's Boulder, CO research facility to simulate temperature and pressure conditons in the Pacific Ocean, the report's authors pinpointed the role of a vast zone of high pressure in the atmosphere off of California and Oregon, nearly four miles high and 2,000 miles long.

As when a large boulder rolls into a narrow stream, or a diversion dam redirects the flow of a mighty river into an altogether different basin (to refer back to that old California obsession), the ridge blocked the high-speed air currents known as the jet stream. The air currents would have brought rain ashore in California, Oregon, and Washington, but instead sent it north to British Columbia, Alaska, and the Arctic Circle. “The current drought is not part of a long-term change in California precipitation,” the study authors write; rather, the drought has been a product of “natural ocean cycles.”

The report takes the prevailing question in people's minds ("Has climate change been a cause of the drought?") and inverts it into one with similar form but altogether different content ("Has climate change been the cause of the drought?"). Scientists already universally acknowledge that a high-pressure ridge has persistently pushed out storms (a Stanford meteorologist dubbed it the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge in early-2014, and the mass media ran with the label). The operative question is whether warmer temperatures have made the ridge stronger, and thereby caused the lack of rainfall to be more severe.

On this point, numerous studies have answered in the affirmative. In 2004, a professor of geophysics and graduate student at UC Santa Cruz published “Disappearing Arctic sea ice reduces available water in the American west,” in which they explained that the sea ice's inexorable melting is leading to stronger high-pressure ridges off the Pacific Ocean, exactly like the one that caused California's lack of rainfall.

A more conservative Stanford University study, released in Sept. 2014, states that “extreme atmospheric conditions associated with California's crippling drought are far more likely to occur under today's global warming conditions than in the climate that existed before humans emitted large amounts of greenhouse gases.” The meteorologist who minted the term “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge” was one of this study's authors.

The logic behind such studies is simple. When cool sea ice melts, it makes it easier for warm air to rise out of the ocean over the polar regions and funnel up into the atmosphere.

The relationship between climate change and the American West's relationship to water scarcity requires a more searching examination than the university's supercomputers can possibly provide, however. That's because the water infrastructure in question is based on a particular relationship to land, which grows out of the social ecology of the American West. Revealingly, this is a region that relies more on automobiles, agricultural fertilizers, and energy-intensive consumption of goods than almost anywhere else. The availability of cheap water is a foundation that lifts up all of these things. But all of these things are also founded on the region's history of colonization.

This past November and December, I took an 11-day trip to Black Mesa: 4,000 square miles of ginger-colored plateau land within the Navajo Indian Reservation of Northeast Arizona. The place gets its name (a colonial name) from a certain fateful black mineral that resides so near the surface that rain and erosion have exposed it to the sun's rays. It is home to the United States' largest recoverable coal deposit: estimated at 21 billion tons. I know of no place that better illustrates the common historical, anthropological, political, and physical causes of climate change and the American West's colossal water infrastructure.

Every year, the world's biggest coal conglomerate, Peabody Energy of St. Louis, extracts 12 million tons of coal from Black Mesa. From there, the coal trains run 97 miles to the misleadingly named Navajo Generating Station in Page, Arizona. The name is misleading because fewer than half of Navajo households have electricity. This towering facility – which, due to its combination of isolation and enormity, was visible to the naked eyes of Apollo astronauts — rates as the second-largest electrical utility station in the US. It has a capacity of 2,250 megawatts and acts as the primary power source for a unique set of exceptionally resource-intensive human settlements: Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.


Defying geography takes quite a bit of energy, which is why the greatest consumers of electricity in California, Arizona, and Nevada are all water projects. In the case of the Navajo Generating Station, more than one-quarter of the energy is dedicated to running the Bureau of Reclamation's Central Arizona Project: a 336-mile canal system that runs across the desert state like a freight train carrying cargos of water in concrete. The canal spits out Colorado River water onto Arizona's improbable hay farms, citrus orchards, cotton fields, and golf courses, as well as into the domestic pipes of Phoenix, Tucson, and other sprawling desert municipalities. Another chunk of the Generating Station's electricity helps run Los Angeles' water supply freeway, the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Three miles north of the Generating Stations stands the enormous concrete plug on the mainstem Colorado River known as Glen Canyon Dam. The dam forms the United States' largest surface reservoir by volume, Lake Powell. Every year, the Bureau of Reclamation injects eight billion gallons of Lake Powell water into the Navajo Generating Station's cooling towers. A prominent argument for not leveling Glen Canyon Dam with dynamite – as is long overdue to occur — is that the Navajo Generating Station would be unable to operate without it.

This story fundamentally has to do with the sort of relationship to land born of colonization. So, we turn now to the story of Black Mesa's indigenous people, who comprised the largest enclave of traditional Indigenous society still extant in the United States for most of the 20th century. Most were Dineh (Navajo). Many were Hopi. Their ongoing occupation of their ancestral landbase rendered them a human barrier to progress, however. In 1974, the US Congress voted to remove them as part of the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act — often simply called “the relocation act.”

The bill was shepherded through Congress by Arizona's Senatorial delegation, and by a Mormon lobbyist in Peabody Coal's employ, whose name was John Boyden. As part of the bill, the federal government sliced about two million acres shared between Navajo and Hopi into so-called “Navajo Partitioned Lands” and “Hopi Partitioned Lands.” Under the guise that the Hopi and Navajo were locked in a bloody “rangeland war” (which they decidedly were not), the US enforced the new boundaries with a sort of border wall; in this case, one made of barbed wire.

An estimated 16,000 Dineh and 300 Hopi who were caught on the “wrong side of the fence” were forced to move. It has been the largest forced removal of Indigenous people the United States government has carried out since the “Trail of Tears.”

Peabody has extracted approximately 400 million tons of coal from Black Mesa. The coal has been the source of an estimated 325 million tons of atmospheric CO2. That's about 50 percent greater than the combined annual emissions of the world's 48 “least developed countries” as categorized by the United Nations, whose standard of living closely resembles that of the Dineh.

The Dineh were no strangers to subsidizing the energy requirements of the US' domestic economy. Between 1940 and 1986, roughly one-half of all US domestic uranium was mined on the Navajo Reservation. The US nuclear weapons program and its corollary, the nuclear power industry, depended on this steady supply of the dense, radioactive mineral.

The mining companies left a toxic legacy of waste piles. Cancer rates and genetic mutations among the Dineh soared. The single most egregious case of uranium contamination took place in 1979. In northwestern New Mexico, the lines between four states come together like the crosshairs of a gunsight. It was there, in the town of Shiprock, that a tailings and wastewater pond operated by United Nuclear Corporation gave way and spewed over 1,000 tons of radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution into the Puerco River and onto its floodplains. Though far lesser known, it likely released a far greater amount of radiation than the Three Mile Island melt-down in Pennsylvania, which occurred only four months prior.

The following year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs belatedly selected a stretch of land within the Navajo Reservation on which to build a so-called “relocation community.” The Bureau selected 400,000 acres in and around the town of Chambers, AZ: one of the areas most impacted by the uranium spill. Already stricken with broken hearts, uncounted numbers of the relocatees sickened and died from their exposure to the poisons. An estimated one-quarter of the first group that moved there in 1980 was dead by 1986.

Fortunately, the story of Black Mesa is not merely a glide to perdition. Many families resisted the relocation edict and remained in their ancestral homes. Their ongoing occupation of their ancestral lands is the main factor that has blocked further expansion of the Black Mesa mines. During the 1980s, the US National Guard threatened to carry out their final expulsion by force. Thousands of supporters from throughout the world rallied to their side. The US government, fearing a global public relations crisis, backed down. It has elected to wage strictly a war of attrition since then.

Colonizers do not take kindly to unfinished business. Peabody Coal has applied to the Department of Interior to expand the Kayenta mine further into the so-called Hopi Partition Lands, which are occupied by the Dineh relocation resisters and their sheep.

Since October 2014, Hopi Rangers backed of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, and the Department of the Interior, have been impounding the Dineh residents' livestock. For Black Mesa families, sheep herds are the basis of a subsistence economy. The official justification for the impoundments is that residents’ herds exceed the size allowed to them in permits, and that they are, therefore, overgrazing and causing harm to the land – land slated for coal strip-mining — in a period of prolonged drought.

While at Black Mesa, my partner and I stayed with the family of elder resister Glenna Begay, whose family had just received a notice from the BIA informing them that their sheep would be impounded by Dec. 31st if not removed sooner. As Glenna's daughter, Selina Begay, told me, “Our elders tell us we're still on the Longest Walk.”

She is referring to one of the most grisly episodes in the history of US colonization of the southwest. In 1864, Gen. Kit Carson's army rounded up 8,500 Navajos who had survived the bullets of the whites, and herded them to New Mexican territory at Fort Sumner. The people of Black Mesa were among those rounded up. Four years later, the federal government closed Fort Sumner and established the Navajo Reservation.

Driving back to California from Black Mesa, my partner and I traveled along the eastern escarpment of the Sierras Nevadas, across stretches of land forever altered by Los Angeles' water imperialism. The Los Angeles Aqueduct starts out at Mono Lake: an ancient, saline soda lake and oasis in the dry Great Basin. From there, the aqueduct runs a distance of 419 miles. It is operated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWR), which owns 21.6 percent of the Navajo Generating Station's output from burning Black Mesa coal.

The LA Aqueduct is California's second longest continuous waterworks. Clocking in at Number One is The California Aqueduct, which runs from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to just beyond the San Gorgonio Pass in Riverside County. It boasts about 715 miles of canals, pipelines, and tunnels, making it longest in the world this side of China's ancient canal system and huge Soviet hydrological projects on the rivers that feed the Aral Sea. The third largest in the American West is the Central Arizona Project.

Arguably, the next longest water project is one that originates at Black Mesa. Here, I am referring to the United States' only long-distance coal slurry line, which used to mix water with Black Mesa coal and sluice it across 273 miles of some of the driest land in the western hemisphere. Its destination was the Mohave Generating Station in Laughlin, NV. For this operation, Peabody Coal pumped a billion gallons a year for almost thirty years from the Black Mesa aquifer, the sole water source for the Hopi and Navajo peoples of those lands. The slurry line ceased to operate in 2005, when the Mohave Generating Station closed down rather than comply with US Clean Air Act emission standards.

In the three decades of its operation, groundwater levels dropped, wells and springs dried up, and the entire ecology of Black Mesa changed: plants have failed to reseed and certain vegetation has died out. Now, the Dineh and Hopi haul nearly all of their water from town.

As we traveled along the Sierras, we took the first route across open in spite of the snow: the Carson Pass along Highway 89. Twenty years prior to rounding up the Dineh like cattle and driving them to Fort Sumner, Kit Carson was a scout in General John C. Fremont's famed US-sponsored surveying expedition to California, then a province of Mexico. Carson led Fremont's expedition over this same pass. In doing so, he opened up California to the Gold Rush and thus to the gut-wrenching vortex of genocidal violence that soon engulfed California's indigenous people.

As we entered California, the first big rains of December had just begun. At elevations greater than 8,000 feet, some snow was apparent. But virtually no snow had fallen below that level. Even when the dislocated moisture does arrive at home beyond the great ridge in the Pacific, it no longer stays for as long. The climbing temperatures drive it away, with great consequences for the future of California's water supply. Snowmelt provides two-thirds of California's developed water supply. As of this writing, Sierra snowpack is at roughly 35 percent of its historical average.

Upon reaching the northern end of San Joaquin Valley, we were met with a driving rain. To get to the San Francisco Bay Area, we roughly followed the course of the Mokelumne Aqueduct, a 91-mile siphon to the East Bay from the Mokelumne River. Fittingly, much of that water – which mainly collects from the mountains that join at the Carson Pass — eventually reaches the flagship campus of the world's largest public university system, the University of California at Berkeley.

This past year, the University of California Board of Regents convened a committee to consider financially divesting from the world's two hundred largest fossil fuel companies. Activists are increasingly using divestment as a key weapon in their battle against climate change. Divestment is the opposite of investment: When an institution divests, it sells off any financial stakes it has in an industry and avoids funding harmful activities. One of the university committee's advisors is Peabody Energy President Gregory Boyce.

It is unlikely that the university braintrust contemplated inviting a representative of the Black Mesa resisters to advise their committee.

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