CONSUMER

Native American tribes gain new authority to stop unwanted hydropower projects

Feb 23, 2024, 6:30 PM

A sunset spectacle featuring two mitten-shaped rock formations crosses Monument Valley Tribal Park ...

A sunset spectacle featuring two mitten-shaped rock formations crosses Monument Valley Tribal Park from the Visitors Center in Oljato-Monument Valley, Az. on Wednesday, March 29, 2023. (AP Photo/Vyto Stairnksas)

(AP Photo/Vyto Stairnksas)

Federal regulators have granted Native American tribes more power to block hydropower projects on their land after a flurry of applications were filed to expand renewable energy in the water-scarce U.S. Southwest.

Previously, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission granted developers approval to move ahead with planning even if tribes objected. That practice came to an end last week. Now, a new commission policy allows tribes to quickly veto proposals, forcing businesses to cooperate with them if they want the federal government to grant exclusive rights to their hydropower projects.

“This is the acknowledgement and respect of tribal sovereignty, which is critical,” said George Hardeen, spokesperson for the Navajo Nation’s president’s office.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently rejected seven proposals for projects on the Navajo Nation, which stretches 27,000 square miles (69,000 square kilometers) across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. When it issued those rejections, the commission also announced the policy change, handing tribes the same power as federal agencies to block projects.

“It applies anywhere that a hydropower project might be proposed on tribal lands throughout the United States,” said Aaron Paul, an attorney with Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group.

The Hopi Tribe, which is completely surrounded by Navajo, urged the commission to cement the policy announcement in a formal rule, worrying a different administration would be less favorable to tribes and change the policy.

The pumped hydropower projects are essentially big batteries that generate energy when demand is high and there aren’t a lot of other renewable sources like solar and wind available. Hydropower can be turned on when it is needed and works by releasing water from an upper reservoir to a lower one.

Later, when the electric grid has excess power, water is pumped in a loop back up to the higher reservoir, recharging the battery.

Developers have expressed new interest in building these pumped hydropower projects as coal-fired plants shut down in the Southwest. The canyons, towering mesas and dramatic river valleys in the area are ideal terrain because the projects require moving water between different elevations.

Environmental groups and some members of the Navajo Nation argue the projects require enormous amounts of water in a part of the country that already doesn’t have enough. Roughly one-third of the 175,000 people on the Navajo Nation don’t have running water at home.

People are sensitive to how scarce water is, and “they would more likely say ‘no’ to these kinds of projects,” Hardeen said.

Some of the proposals that were rejected came from Nature and People First. For example, the company told federal regulators it wanted to build the Black Mesa East project on the Navajo reservation in Arizona that would have two upper reservoirs with a combined capacity of 100,000 acre-feet and a single, lower reservoir with the same total storage capacity. An acre-foot of water serves two or three homes annually.

The project was proposed near a home site lease that Jheremy Young’s family has held for generations. He’s happy the commission blocked it. The area around the mesa is rugged, quiet and vast, and water has to be hauled in.

“That’s where my dad came from, that’s where his father came from,” Young said. “The sentimental value of the land — the story, the history — were the biggest concern.”

The Navajo Nation told federal regulators the company hadn’t consulted with the correct tribal authorities or addressed key concerns about water use and harm to golden eagle and other species’ habitats. Hardeen said now, developers will first need to go through the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources.

Denis Payre, president and CEO of Nature and People First, said the commission’s decision was “undeniably disheartening.” The company secured support from local Navajo communities and talked with Navajo government officials for a project he said would create jobs.

“Developing pumped storage projects is inherently challenging; this additional obstacle threatens to halt our collective efforts,” Payre said.

The company submitted a proposal for a much larger project than it intends to construct, giving it flexibility to build a smaller project on the piece of land it finds is best after study and tribal consultation.

That approach and using that amount of water engenders opposition, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.

“If you are going to propose a small project, actually propose a small project,” said Taylor McKinnon, the center’s Southwest director.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission also rejected proposals from Rye Development, which said it values tribal consultation and will continue to study opportunities on tribal land.

Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the industry group National Hydropower Association, said he supports tribes’ right to stop unwanted projects. But he said the new policy could halt planning too soon.

The commission denied preliminary permits for the seven projects, which only recognize a business is first in line to develop a project and allows further studies. Developers have to consult with tribes before they can be granted a license and start building.
Companies don’t want to navigate a complicated permitting process and spend years working with a tribe only for another business to swoop in and win rights to the project at the last minute, Woolf said.

One company quickly caught up in the new policy is Pumped Hydro Storage, which wants a preliminary permit for a project near the Little Colorado River on Navajo Nation land in Arizona. In light of its new policy, the commission asked for more input from those it potentially impacts before they decide what to do.

The company’s manager, Steve Irwin, said pumped storage is important but hard to build on the Navajo Nation’s land.

“There’s no clear pathway to doing business on the reservation,” Irwin said. “It’s almost like you have to have 100% unanimous consensus. It’s not majority, it’s got to be 100%, and it’s like, you are never going to get 100%.”


The Associated Press receives support from the Walton Family Foundation for coverage of water and environmental policy. The AP is solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s environmental coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/climate-and-environment

KSL 5 TV Live

Consumer

FILE - The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) building in Washington, on Jan. 28, 2015. The Federal Tra...

Christopher Rugaber, AP Economics Writer

The FTC voted to bar ‘noncompete’ agreements for most employees

The Federal Trade Commission voted to ban measures known as noncompete agreements, which bar workers from jumping to or starting competing companies for a prescribed period of time.

17 hours ago

Peggy Lundberg tells KSL’s Matt Gephardt about her experience of having her travel credit stolen....

Matt Gephardt and Sloan Schrage

Thieves stealing airline travel credits: How you can protect them

If someone steals your credit card or hacks into your bank account, federal law says you should get most of your money back. But what protections do you have when someone steals your airline travel credits?

1 day ago

Homes that were lost as part of a land collapse on April 22, 2023. (Chopper 5, KSL TV)...

Shelby Lofton

A look back 1 year after 2 Draper homes collapsed in a landslide

One year ago, a landslide in Draper took two houses with it, destroying them and forcing the evacuation of other homes in the area.

2 days ago

FILE - Moab is pictured on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. A trailer park in the city, referred to as the W...

Mary Culbertson

Moab trailer park residents forced into eviction by city after insurance complications

A community in a Moab trailer park is facing eviction, after they waited for six years for an affordable housing project to complete.

2 days ago

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman speaks as he joins Ryan Smith, co-founder and chairman of Smith Enter...

Michael Houck and Lindsay Aerts, KSL TV

Smith Entertainment Group addresses the logistics and politics of bringing the NHL to Utah

On Friday, the NHL and the new owners of the Utah NHL team discussed the exciting opportunities that the team can bring to Beehive State.

5 days ago

The Delta Center welcoming the NHL to Utah after the announcement of the Arizona Coyotes move....

Mike Anderson

One expert says branding a NHL team this fast is a monumental task

The timeline for Utah's new NHL team is rapidly approaching for the 23-24 hockey season, and some marketing experts say the new owners have a huge task ahead. 

5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Women hold card for scanning key card to access Photocopier Security system concept...

Les Olson

Why Printer Security Should Be Top of Mind for Your Business

Connected printers have vulnerable endpoints that are an easy target for cyber thieves. Protect your business with these tips.

Modern chandelier hanging from a white slanted ceiling with windows in the backgruond...

Lighting Design

Light Up Your Home With These Top Lighting Trends for 2024

Check out the latest lighting design trends for 2024 and tips on how you can incorporate them into your home.

Technician woman fixing hardware of desktop computer. Close up....

PC Laptops

Tips for Hassle-Free Computer Repairs

Experiencing a glitch in your computer can be frustrating, but with these tips you can have your computer repaired without the stress.

Close up of finger on keyboard button with number 11 logo...

PC Laptops

7 Reasons Why You Should Upgrade Your Laptop to Windows 11

Explore the benefits of upgrading to Windows 11 for a smoother, more secure, and feature-packed computing experience.

Stylish room interior with beautiful Christmas tree and decorative fireplace...

Lighting Design

Create a Festive Home with Our Easy-to-Follow Holiday Prep Guide

Get ready for festive celebrations! Discover expert tips to prepare your home for the holidays, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for unforgettable moments.

Battery low message on mobile device screen. Internet and technology concept...

PC Laptops

9 Tips to Get More Power Out of Your Laptop Battery

Get more power out of your laptop battery and help it last longer by implementing some of these tips from our guide.

Native American tribes gain new authority to stop unwanted hydropower projects