In a thorny case of jobs versus the environment, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed the Mohave coal plant's majority owner, Southern California Edison, to continue some of its upgrade investments in the power plant. However, the spending will not necessarily ensure that the facility will be kept open beyond the end of next year. In a unanimous vote December 2, the commission directed Edison to explore alternatives to continued Mohave operations. The utility is to track worker benefits; attempt to resolve water issues; and try to figure out how to replace power for the Hopi and Navajo tribes supplied by the 1,580 MW plant. "It's economic life or death" to the Hopi and Navajo whether the power plant is shut down or continues to operate, said commissioner Loretta Lynch. Mohave employs 335 workers at the facility in an area bereft of jobs. Lynch added that the commission wants to "stave off a temporary shutdown of Mohave." Then there's the environmental cost of keeping the plant running. "The aquifer is being dangerously depleted," Lynch added. A pure water aquifer is tapped to slurry the coal fuel from the Black Mesa mine 273 miles east of the power plant. Using more than 4,000 acre-feet a year of that water has depleted the aquifer, causing springs and wells to dry. At the same time, the tribes want the water pumping to stop. They also want to hang on to the jobs available at the power plant. "Mohave uses a tremendous amount of water" for cooling, claims Lon House, consultant to the Black Mesa Trust. The CPUC authorized spending for continued studies to find an alternative aquifer. The coal-burning plant also emits significant amounts of air pollution, which is why regulators addressed the issue in the first place. As a result of a settlement from a federal lawsuit brought by environmentalists over the plant's emissions causing smog over the Grand Canyon, Mohave's owners have to install pollution-control equipment by the end of 2005. Edison projects that more than $1 billion will be needed to retrofit the plant but admits that it does not know what the future costs of fuel and water will be. The utility has an assured supply of neither water nor coal. Peabody, the coal-mining company, has a permit that expires in 2026. Peabody is attempting to extend the permit, but the tribes are challenging it. Mohave's contract for cooling water expires the same year, according to the Black Mesa Trust. The CPUC decision buys some time to find alternatives before the plant must be either retrofitted or shut down by the end of next year in accordance with the settlement. However, because the costs associated with keeping the plant running are unknown, regulators cannot evaluate whether proposed alternatives-a solar farm on the site, conservation, and a coal gasification plant-are reasonable. "The CPUC's order strikes a basically sound, balanced approach to the difficult and complex situation facing Mohave," Edison stated. "We also agree with the CPUC that determining whether extended operation is in the best interest of our customers is impossible until these critical coal and water issues are resolved."