Summer Intern Anna Brown ’18 Reclaims Land at Black Mesa Water Coalition in Flagstaff, AZ

“Just Transition” on the Navajo Nation

If you watch the news, followed the anti-Dakota Access Pipeline campaign (NoDapl), or checked Facebook in the past year, you’ve probably encountered the “Water is Life” slogan. The “Water is Life” campaign targeted the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its threat to water availability and cleanliness for the Dakota Sioux tribe. This slogan is now widespread and intersects with a number of Indigenous Justice movements to raise awareness about water issues. This summer, I’m working in Flagstaff Arizona for the Black Mesa Water Coalition, where the understanding that “Water is Life” is meeting the reality that “Coal is Life.”

The Navajo Nation approaches a critical transition for their nation’s future investment in their people and in energy production in just two short years. In 2019, the nation’s contract with the Salt River Project, a coalition of energy owners who own the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) will expire. This sets up a complex set of realities. On the one hand, coal production has depleted the Navajo water supply to unfathomable levels. On the other hand, losing coal also threatens job security on the nation. Ironically, while our federal government promises to rejuvenate the economy in part with jobs in the coal industry, coal industry representatives at Black Mesa are ending this contract under the claim that coal is no longer lucrative.

Black Mesa is part of the Navajo Nation in Northern Arizona and is the location of contentious water issues. The Black Mesa mine is one of two coal mines on the nation. The other one is the Kayenta mine that provides coal for the Navajo Generating Station. For 50 years, the Navajo Nation has allowed the Peabody Coal Company and the Salt River Project access to coal to provide energy to the Southwest. In addition to mining rights, the contract allowed for unrestricted water use to transport the mined coal in a slurry line from mine to production center. As a result, there’s been a dramatic decrease in the water supply on Black Mesa.

Members of the older generation on the nation have remarked on how the land is turning to desert and on the dried-out washes formerly saturated with water. Yet many families have depended on the coal mining industry for employment. For them, their livelihood depends on income from these jobs. “Water is Life” here has become “Coal is Life.”

The Navajo Council continues to discuss legislation that will guide the future of energy, water and jobs for the nation. Meanwhile, organizations such as Black Mesa Water Coalition call for what the Climate Justice Alliance calls a “Just Transition.” A Just Transition seeks to “transition whole communities toward thriving economies that provide dignified, productive and ecologically sustainable livelihoods that are governed directly by workers and communities.” ( In the simplest terms, it would return the word “economy” to its original meaning: home management.

Defining “Just Transition” for the Navajo Nation is a difficult task and is precisely what the coalition seeks to support through their work with communities on the Navajo Nation. My work with the coalition focuses on the Food Sovereignty Project, a key component of the Restorative Economy Project. This project supports sustainable development by helping to reclaim the land through agriculture, to create jobs independent from outside industry, and to revitalize local food systems using traditional Navajo practices and knowledge. Our pilot projects includes a five-acre community farm that uses traditional knowledge and the clanship system to create viable and sustainable food production.

Self-sufficiency, community land management and development — while respecting and caring for water resources — are integral to the Navajo way of life. The Food Sovereignty Project aims to disrupts a cycle of exploitation and violence on the Navajo people. By creating their own food system, gaining independence from imported food and American industries and restoring the land the Navajo people begin to create a “Just Transition” that relies on community and the land rather than the coal industry for income.

To learn more about Black Mesa Water Coalition, visit

You’ll find information about projects supporting solar energy, the wool market, “Just Transition” awareness alongside more information about the Food Sovereignty Project.

Experiences like Anna’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Internship Coordinator Victoria Wolff.

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