Marshall Johnson first noticed the holes in the ground six years ago when he was
building a new house for his mother in To Nizhoni Ani (Beautiful Spring Speaks)
Valley on Black Mesa in northeastern Arizona. He put old posts in a dozen holes
around his mother’s house to keep her sheep from falling in and injuring themselves.
Then he began to wonder.
And to walk the land, eventually tracing two startling series of hundreds of holes and
cracks running for approximately 30 miles southwest to northeast across the mesa. There may
be more, he says, explaining that he has had time to investigate, inch by inch, only a small
part of the landscape that is home to the Hopi Tribe and about 27,000 Navajo.
Under Black Mesa lies the N-aquifer, the sole source of drinking water for the Hopi and
thousands of Navajo.
Both tribes pump water from the N-aquifer for municipal use, but more than half of the
water that is removed from the aquifer each year is pumped by Peabody Energy to support
its coal mining operations on Black Mesa just a few miles north of where Johnson first discovered
According to a United States Geological Survey Investigations Report 02-4211, in the
year 2000, total water withdrawals from the N-aquifer were 7,740 acre feet. Of that amount,
less than half – 3,250 acre feet – was pumped by the Hopi and Navajo Tribes for municipal
use. The remaining 4,490 acre feet was pumped by Peabody, which uses water from the Naquifer
to slurry coal from the Black Mesa Mine to the Mohave Generating Station in
Signs of decline
The N-aquifer also feeds the seeps and springs that are essential to the religious and ceremonial
life of both tribes. Over the past several years, religious practitioners have observed
that many of their once vibrant sacred springs have dried up, and yet more are producing less
water than in the past.
Farmers have seen a similar phenomenon in Moencopi Wash. The waterway in which
their elders once swam now flows only part of the year, and even then the flow is much less
than the elders remember.
Add to these observations a 2000 report, “Drawdown: Groundwater Mining on Black
Mesa” prepared by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC report, which analyzed
data on the N-aquifer collected by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of
Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the USGS, and Peabody itself, found that the
criterion that is supposed to be used by OSMRE to judge the structural stability of the aquifer
had been exceeded in six of the 15 monitoring wells set up to track whether the aquifer is in
The criterion is that “the measure of water pressure known as the potentiometric head, the
height to which confined water will rise when tapped by a well, should rise at least 100 feet
above the aquifer’s top.”
In six N-aquifer monitoring wells, the potentiometric head is less than 100 feet.
The NRDC report also stated, “A 1993 study conducted with the aid of Hopi elders found
that the outflow from springs sacred to the tribe had been dropping significantly. Little Burro
Spring and Burro Spring, sources of water for the Hopi Grey Flute Society ceremonies, were
depleted, as were the springs at Rock Ledge, Moenkopi, and Pasture Canyon. Rock Coyote
Spring, marked by a commemorative shrine, was virtually dried up, although water could be
seen in the bottom of the original impoundment structure.”
The observations of religious practitioners and the NRDC report have led many to ask if
the N-aquifer is in danger of sustaining irreparable harm from too much pumping (overdrafting).
Add Johnson’s observations, and the answer may be “yes.”
Aquifer overdrafting and land subsidence
Dr. Lon House of Water & Energy Consulting, a California-based company, explained
overdrafting of an aquifer this way: “There are three principal surface symptoms associated
with overdrafting of an aquifer. The first symptom is that the water level in the aquifer starts
dropping (water levels in wells drops).
“Associated with that are surface expressions that the water in the aquifer is being reduced
– springs start drying up. The technical term is the piezometric head is being reduced. Both
of these symptoms are an indication that withdrawals from the aquifer are exceeding
“However, if the overdrafting is stopped at this level of symptoms, the aquifer’s integrity
has not been compromised and allowing sufficient recharge will refill the aquifer.
“The third principal surface expression is ground subsidence or sinkholes.”
Dr. Blaine Reely is a civil engineer and hydrologist in Tucson. After seeing the photographs
(one published with this article), he said, “Such cracks and holes in the ground are typical
surface manifestations of ground movement that indicates land subsidence.”
He noted that such manifestations often occur along parallel tracks. The most common
reason for land subsidence, he said, is water being removed from an aquifer.
The Center for Land Subsidence and Earth Fissure Information, explains on its website
(http://www.azgs.as.gov/CLASEF.htm) how land subsidence occurs.
“As water is pumped from an aquifer, the water occupying the spaces between the rock
particles is removed and the water level, described as the water table, drops. Without the
water, the particles then become more tightly packed together. In other words, the particles
compact and consolidate.
“With the continued pumping of groundwater without adequate recharge, the sediments
become increasingly compressed, causing the land to settle or subside. This lowering is called
land subsidence and is caused by the compaction of the aquifer. Subsidence occurs gradually
and spreads over wide areas.”
That the holes and fissures on Black Mesa are occurring over a wide area is evidenced by
Marshall Johnson’s maps. That it has been a gradual, and quite recent, development, is suggested
by the comments of his mother, Lorraine Johnson. She is 78 years old and has lived
on Black Mesa, tending sheep, her whole life. She said that she too first noticed the holes six
years ago near her summer camp where she built a new house. She said she had not seen such
holes before that time, despite her long and close familiarity with the landscape of Black
What land subsidence is
Dr. House said that land subsidence “is a very serious development. This means that the
aquifer itself is collapsing. Water is being pumped out of the interstitial spaces and the
remaining structure is insufficient to support the weight above it, so it collapses.”
He continued, “This is a very serious development, because it is irrevocable and permanent.
Once this happens, the aquifer in that area is ruined (the caverns have collapsed) and
you can’t put more water back into the aquifer even if you stop pumping. Wells and springs
that depend upon the collapsed part of the aquifer are gone forever.”
After seeing the photographs, Dr. House said, “Something is happening (on Black Mesa)
and it isn’t good, and it is widespread.”
The worst-case scenario is that the N-aquifer has begun to collapse because too much
water has been pumped from it to maintain the water pressure that ensures the aquifer’s structural
stability. This scenario is possibly supported by the NRDC report, which found that the
criterion used by OSMRE to determine the structural stability of the aquifer has been exceeded.
Dr. House, Dr. Reely, and Dr. Abe Springer, a hydrologist at Northern Arizona University,
said that more work needs to be done, including identifying the holes and cracks using a GPS
unit for more accurate mapping and comparison of the information thus obtained with satellite
But it was not sophisticated scientific equipment that brought this potentially devastating
development to light.
It was a man who walked the land with his eyes open.