IN what many are calling the first major test of the Clinton administration's sensitivity to Indian cultural concerns - and federal responsibility to protect native American homelands - a long-standing water dispute in northern Arizona is reaching its climax.
Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt is expected to rule within 30 to 90 days on whether to allow the Peabody Coal Company to continue using pristine ground water from beneath the arid Hopi and Navajo Indian Reservations east of Grand Canyon National Park and just north of Flagstaff.
The controversy has been simmering for more than two decades as tribal leaders say springs, wells, streams, and farmland are being sucked dry because of the mine's method of transporting its coal in a water slurry. The largest coal mine in the United States, the Black Mesa-Kayenta mine uses more than 1 billion gallons of ground water annually to move coal 270 miles from the mine to the Mohave Power Plant near Las Vegas, Nev.
``We are dependent on our groundwater for survival,'' says Ferrell Secakuku, newly elected chairman of the Hopi nation. Noting that Peabody's annual use of water is more than his tribe uses in a decade, he says, ``Our fields lie fallow, our gardens shrivel, our sacred way of life is threatened.''
Interior Department consultants have found that Peabody could obtain slurry water from Lake Powell, about 90 miles north. The $35 million to $60 million cost of a needed pipeline, if amortized over the projected future use of the mine - 30 to 40 years - would increase utility costs only about 3 percent, they say.
But Peabody has countered that there is no scientific evidence to back up the Indians' claims. ``We have 26 years of historical reference from which to show no significant impact of our water use,'' says Irene Crawford, a lawyer for Peabody.
Contending, instead, that it is development and increased local pumping on the Navajo and Hopi reservations themselves that is depleting the aquifer beneath them, Ms. Crawford points out that the mine itself is 40 miles away from Indian territory.
``We are being painted as the bad guys after both [Navajo and Hopi] tribes have continued to sign lease agreements for coal and water royalties as late as 1987,'' she says.
Besides employing an overwhelming percentage of native Americans - 90 percent of 900 employees at an average income of $55,000 - Crawford contends that the mine pays $3.2 million per year in water royalties to the tribe and close to $40 million in coal royalties.
That compensation amounts to $800 per acre feet of water that the mine uses, the highest cost of industrial water in all of the United States.
(One acre foot of water is enough to cover one acre of land, one foot deep, and is considered the quantity used by an average family of four in one year.)
In a letter to Mr. Babbitt last August, the Hopis called for the interior secretary to refuse the coal company's most recent request for a permit to run the mine.
Hopi General Counsel Scott Canty says several laws, including the 1976 Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act and 1969 National Environmental Policy Act, as well as several US Supreme Court decisions obligate Babbitt to act as steward for tribes across the country.
``We believe the US government has no choice except to protect the Hopi tribe and its water,'' says Mr. Canty.
Vijai Rai, mineral-resources chief for the Interior Department, says his office is weighing documents from Navajos, Hopis, and Peabody that include several options:
* Deny Peabody a permit.
* Direct them to drill wells on the western edge of the aquifer which, because of an underground divide, would not deplete water beneath reservation land.
* Divide Peabody's use of water between the current aquifer and an adjacent one.
Mr. Rai says his department will make its recommendations to Babbitt within two weeks.
But a final response on the Hopi's request to deny Peabody a permit could be delayed until yet another study is done of alternative methods to transfer the coal.