Murder of the Southwest

I have a son living—and roasting—in an ever growing and warming Phoenix. And now there is the specter of Covid in the mix in an urban Southwest only made habitable by borrowed water and electric air conditioning. 

In 1971, Alvin Josephy wrote a blistering examination of power generation politics in the Southwest in Audubon Magazine. “Murder in the Southwest,” he called it. It’s important today as word creeps out from the Navajo Nation about Covid-19 and the underlying poverty and lack of clean water that are terrible in their own right and awful in contributing to the virus among the people. The Hopi tribe has also seen high rates of  infection and death from Covid-19, and there is even less national attention to the Hopi situation than there is to the Navajo.

Josephy wrote about the coordinated efforts of public officials and agencies, private and public electric power companies, and private business to promote growth in the Southwest. They needed water and they needed power. Water meant first the Colorado River; power meant Glen Canyon Dam and a series of dams, but when more dam-building struck opposition, power brokers switched to a complex of coal-fired power plants across the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado.

The water would be channeled, or pumped over hills and mountains—with huge amounts of electrical energy—to the burgeoning cities and agriculture of the Southwest. The water would come primarily from the Colorado River, some of which had been or should have been allocated to Tribes. The coal would come from tribal lands.

The trick was to secure access to the coal. This was primarily Peabody Coal’s work, but involved the complicity of a coterie of business, government and industry leaders mentioned above. The tools were secrecy and dividing the Tribes. Divisions were there already between “traditionalists” and “progressives,” those intent on preserving culture and traditions of the past, and those who favored development to bring the people education and jobs that would improve their lives. Divisions had been established or exacerbated by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, Roosevelt’s “Indian New Deal,” which asked Tribes across the country to conform to one model of Tribal governance—with Bureau of Indian Affairs veto power. 

The point here is not to argue Tribal politics, but Alvin’s showing how major development proponents exploited the divisions. (That’s how Great Britain built its empire, Josephy used to say, and how Euro-Americans moved across the continent at the expense of Indians.) 

One of the power plants that rattled Josephy in 1971, the 3,000 megawatt Kaiparowits coal-fired power plant in central Utah, was not completed, Southern California Edison citing “increasing costs, environmental constraints, and pending regulatory legislation.” The Navajo Generating Station in Arizona was shut down in 2019. But the power from Glen Canyon Dam, the Navajo and other plants has fueled growth in the Southwest for the last half century. Water—now low in Lake Powell and Lake Mead—is scarce. Power needs built up over time must now be met with conservation, gas, solar, and other means. 

Many jobs were provided over those coal years on and near the reservations, many of them to Tribal members. But now, in its wake, the Tribes are left with the pollution that Josephy warned about, the impacts of a boom and bust economy, and a dire water situation, with Indian water stolen from the Colorado for Phoenix and sister cities, and groundwater poisoned by uranium mining—but that’s another story.

In July of 1971, 49 years ago, Alvin Josephy cautioned that in the long run, we’d have to develop 

“geothermal or other non-polluting sources of power,… change the habits and demands of power consumers… halt waste and profligacy, [and] stop the headlong race for growth, development, and ‘progress’ that is suicidal, and to learn from the traditional Hopis’ religious view of their relationship to nature—of stewardship of the Earth.”

It is, he wrote so presciently in 1971, “the only outlook that matters today.”

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