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“It’s Critical That The Rivers Continue to Flow.” Environmental Activist Nicole Horseherder on Reclaiming Water Rights for Native Americans

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Nicole Horseherder lives in Hard Rock, Ariz., population 53. Hard Rock sits on the Black Mesa, which takes its name from the numerous coal seams running through the plateau in western Arizona.

Horseherder’s home has no running water, as it is prohibitively expensive to drill down to the nearest aquifer that has potable water. Twice a week, she drives her 20-year-old, three-quarter-ton GMC pickup—towing a 500-gal. tank mounted on a flatbed trailer—to a community well 25 miles away.

Coal and water have dominated Horseherder’s life and work for the past decade.

Horseherder is executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání, an advocacy group she helped form in 2000, which is dedicated to ending the “industrial use of precious water sources.” Tó Nizhóní Ání means “sacred water speaks” in Horseherder’s native Diné or Navajo. Horseherder and other activists won a tremendous victory with the 2019 decommissioning and subsequent January 2021 demolition of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the largest coal-burning plants in the West. In a related move, two coal mines, the Kayenta and Black Mesa mines, were also closed down in 2019.

Horseherder’s work has now shifted to ensuring that there are adequate funds to reclaim and restore the land. She recently testified at an oversight hearing before a U.S. House subcommittee on unfulfilled coal reclamation obligations and the need to ensure that reclamation efforts are enforced. While the amount has not been finalized, Arizona Public Service, the local power company, has proposed over $100 million to be spent on restoring land impacted by coal.

Horseherder, who grew up on the reservation, got involved in the work when she returned home after college and noticed that the watering holes where she had helped graze the family’s sheep as a young girl had dried up as the local water had been redirected to be used in coal production.

She is on the front lines of an increasingly urgent battle that will have to be played out repeatedly in coming years to ward off the most severe consequences of climate change, according to a recently released study by the U.N., which called for a “sharp reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades.” There were more than 300 coal-fired power plants in the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Horseherder’s fight is a microcosm and a single example of the grueling effort that goes into closing a single coal mine. “It’s tremendously difficult to fight coal companies and power plants,” she says.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

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Earlier this summer, the Bureau of Land Management for the first time declared a water shortage in the Colorado River. That is your neighborhood. What was your reaction?

We knew that this was going to happen. We knew this day was coming. Fifty years have gone by, and industry has had an enormous impact: irreversible in many instances, on both groundwater and surface water. That water in the upper-basin Colorado River belongs to the Navajo people. Whatever is left has to be carefully managed and carefully used. It’s critical that the rivers continue to flow. The Southwest has a “use it or lose it” law for the water of the Colorado River, and it is very destructive. It’s the perfect example of the colonial mindset in the Southwest. That’s what’s going to destroy the population until we have a mindset change. Now more than ever, an Indigenous mindset is needed.

Can you tell me a bit more about the role water plays in your culture?

One of the teachings of water is that it has the ability to give life, and it has the ability to take life. Human beings were born from and conceived in water and grow in a womb that is filled with water. Water nourishes our development and growth. When we are born, it’s the water that breaks, and so we’re actually born through the force of water. Life springs from water. In our teaching, water was given to us, and it has specific prayers and a specific name and water has a song. There are specific songs that are just water songs. There’s a way of speaking to water and greeting water and making a relationship with water, the same way you make a relationship with your mother. Everywhere you go, you always greet water as your mother. If there’s a flowing river, that’s your mother flowing, and her body is long, and her body can wind, and her body is pure, and it glistens in the sunlight. And so, you speak to her because she’s powerful. These are the principles that we try to pass down to our children.

That’s a different mindset.

In America, you know, we are kind of encouraged to make relationships with other things. We are encouraged to have relationships with corporate executives and boardrooms and money and big houses and fast cars. In our teachings, we have to maintain relationships to the earth and to the sky to the four-leggeds and the wings and the plant life and the water and the sunlight and the air. You have to continue to maintain your responsibility to be a life among life, to be considerate of all things, to not take more than you should and to give when you can. You share this earth with every living being.

How did you get started in this work?

I came home in 1998 and noticed that there was no water here and found out that it was due to the mining, and then organized a group and gave it a name and started advocacy to shut down the industrial use of the water by the coal company [Peabody Coal]. We did everything that we could to raise awareness and compel our local leadership to end the pumping for industrial use.

After a decade of work, how did you feel when the decision was made to close the plant and coal mines?

It was a big sense of relief. The land out here and the people have endured and absorbed so much, and they have lost so much. To lose your water source is no little thing.

You are now focused on reclamation and a transition to a sustainable economy. Over $100 million has been proposed by Arizona Public Service, the utility, for a “just energy transition” for the Navajo Nation. How will that be spent?

I hope that the money is used to help all impacted communities recover. It’s not been decided yet because the money hasn’t been given yet. APS has agreed to provide those kinds of transition funds to the Navajo Nation, but the final decision still rests with the Arizona Corporation Commission.

What does sustainable energy look like in Arizona?

We’re pushing for renewable energy to replace coal. The reason I’m pushing so hard for renewable energy—and it’s not a silver bullet, it doesn’t solve all the problems; there’s a lot of problems with solar as well—the material used to make solar panels, and such, but right now it’s the most viable replacement for coal. Anything that continues to be extractive and require combustion requires an enormous amount of water, and water is just something we don’t have in the Southwest. The Indigenous people, especially the Diné people, can’t afford to give up any more water. We cannot afford to negotiate another drop of water for industry.

Based on your experience, how hard will it be to transition off coal nationwide and shut down the hundreds of coal plants still operating in this country?

It’s tremendously difficult to fight coal plants and coal mining. They have good lawyers; they can afford all the best experts in the world, and they can have these experts write their reports for them any way they want. It’s taken a toll on my health, my family. If you’re Indigenous living in America and you’re doing this work, it is tough work, and you are fighting for the lives of every single person in this country because these issues will impact everybody. If not today, it will tomorrow.

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Correction, Sept. 2

The original version of this story misstated the date that the Navajo Generating Station was demolished. It was December 2020, not January 2021. It also misstated the date of a coal mining closing. The second of two coal mines, the Kayenta mine, was closed in 2019. The Black Mesa mine closed in 2005, not 2019. Finally, the story misstated the location of Hard Rock, it is in northeast Arizona, not the western part of the state.

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