Federal regulators have given Native American tribes more power to block hydroelectric projects on their lands after a flood of applications to expand renewable energy in the water-scarce U.S. Southwest.

Previously, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave developers approval to move forward 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 companies to cooperate if they want the federal government to grant them exclusive rights to their hydroelectric projects.

“This is about recognition and respect for tribal sovereignty, which is critical,” said George Hardeen, spokesman for the Navajo Nation president’s office.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently rejected seven project proposals 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, giving tribes the same power as federal agencies to block projects.

“It applies anywhere a hydroelectric project could be proposed on tribal lands across the United States,” said Aaron Paul, an attorney for the Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation group.

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

Hydroelectric projects are essentially large batteries that generate power when demand is high and there are not many other renewable sources such as solar and wind available. Hydroelectric power can be activated when needed and works by releasing water from an upper reservoir to a lower one.

Later, when the electrical grid has excess power, water is pumped in a circuit back to the highest reservoir, recharging the battery.

Developers have expressed new interest in building these pumped hydroelectric projects as coal-fired plants closed in the Southwest. The area’s canyons, towering mesas and spectacular river valleys are ideal terrain because the projects require the movement of water between different elevations.

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

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

Some of the proposals that were rejected came from Nature and People First. For example, the company told federal regulators that 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. . . One acre-foot of water supplies two or three homes a year.

The project was proposed near a lease that Jheremy Young’s family has held for generations. He’s glad the commission blocked it. The area around the table is rugged, quiet and vast, and water needs to be carried.

“That’s where my dad came from, that’s where his dad came from,” Young said. “The sentimental value of the land (the history, the history) was the biggest concern.”

The Navajo Nation told federal regulators that the company had failed to consult with the correct tribal authorities or address key concerns about water use and damage to habitat for golden eagles and other species. Hardeen now said developers will first have 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 garnered support from local Navajo communities and spoke with Navajo government officials for a project that 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 project much larger than what it intends to build, giving it flexibility to build a smaller project on the land it deems best after a study and tribal consultation.

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

“If you’re going to propose a small project, really propose a small project,” said Taylor McKinnon, southwest center 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 lands.

Malcolm Woolf, president and CEO of the industry group National Hydropower Association, said he supported 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 that a company is first in line to develop a project and allow for further studies. Developers have to consult with tribes before they can be granted a license and begin building.

Companies don’t want to navigate a complicated permitting process and spend years working with a tribe only to have another company swoop in and win the rights to the project at the last minute, Woolf said.

One company that quickly found itself 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 lands in Arizona. In light of its new policy, the commission sought more input from those it potentially impacts before it decides what to do.

Company manager Steve Irwin said pumped storage is important but difficult to build on Navajo Nation lands.

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

___

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

By Sam