Navajo Nation and Environmental Groups Oppose Dam Project Impacting Grand Canyon Ecosystem

Interview with Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director with the Grand Canyon Trust, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

The Grand Canyon ecosystem is more than just Grand Canyon National Park, and developers are now hoping to build three dams on a tributary of the Colorado River just east the Grand Canyon. The proposed dams would be part of a pumped hydro- storage project to store electricity when it’s in surplus to be used when renewable energy is not available. 

The latest proposal for Big Canyon would dam a side canyon of the Little Colorado River about 10 miles from Grand Canyon National Park, entirely on Navajo Nation land. The application to conduct feasibility studies was accepted in June by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, but FERC must provide more approvals if the project is to be built.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director with the Grand Canyon Trust, about the dangers the project poses to endangered species, the cultural heritage of indigenous nations, and the scarce regional water supply that will be even more stressed by the planet’s accelerating climate crisis.

ROGER CLARK: The project itself would store about 44,000 acre feet – 44,000 football fields a foot deep. A football field is about an acre, so imagine a football field with a foot on it. Well, this would be 44,000 acre-feet of water in the lower reservoir. And then there would be three upper reservoirs, that would contain water for storage and producing electricity.

The water for this side canyon project would come not from water flowing down the canyon, although it floods seasonally from time to time. The water would come from ground water, and the developer is proposing to put three wells in the bottom of the canyon floor, and then pump all that ground water into the biggest storage reservoir in the bottom. And they would have to replenish that reservoir, because every time you pump it up to the upper reservoirs, it sits for awhile; it evaporates. The geology of the area is a limestone that’s notorious for being leaky, so there’d be some loss to evaporation and seepage so they’d have to replace maybe a third of the water needed to fill that reservoir every year, possibly more. That’s a concern because the nearest groundwater for that canyon is also the source of springs that come out of the side and the bottom of the Little Colorado River gorge.

And that part of the canyon is about 1,500 feet from the bottom to the top, and it gets deeper – 2,000 feet, 3,000 feet deep – by the time it gets down to the Grand Canyon. So it’s functionally – hydrologically, ecologically, and, for the tribes, culturally – part of the Grand Canyon.

So, the water that comes out of the springs that would be affected by this groundwater pumping to fill the reservoirs is filled with calcium carbonite; it creates a beautiful aquamarine color. It is warm and it’s much different than the water in the main stem of the Colorado River, and for that reason there are several fish that are found in the Colorado River system that are endemic only to that system. One of those is the humpback chub, and its prime breeding ground in the Grand Canyon is the Little Colorado River tributary: it’s that water that they’re adapted to breed in, which are endangered.

The Fish and Wildlife Service was moving to downlist that designation to “threatened” based on the success of the reproduction of the humpback chub population in the Little Colorado River. This dam would certainly alter the amount of water coming down the Little Colorado River on a regular basis. It would affects its chemistry, it would affect its temperature, and one fisheries biologist said, “I couldn’t think of a more complete way to destroy the habitat of the chub.” So it’s a serious threat.

MELINDA TUHUS: Roger Clark, can you say more about the impact on the indigenous people living there?

ROGER CLARK: For Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, 11 affiliated tribes in the Grand Canyon, that entire reach of river is very important culturally. There’s a traditional salt trail that Hopis have used since time immemorial to access salt in the Grand Canyon. It’s listed by the Navajo Nation as being culturally important as a traditional cultural place. So there’s cultural impacts, there’s endangered fish impacts.

And, the most important I think, is that FERC issued permits to this company for two previous applications, which then gives the company three years to conduct and prepare a plan to apply for a license, without ever consulting with or ever getting the permission of the people who live there. The local chapters – the Navajo chapters – all oppose it. The grazing committees all oppose it and so does the Navajo Nation. They just submitted their comments on this, and basically the Navajo Nation says until we get a government to government consultation with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, all action on this permit should stop.

So, even if after three years, they did the feasibility studies and then they apply for a license, FERC says then you can consult with the tribes. Well, they’re not going to give permission, so why just go ahead and issue a permit? FERC has the discretion and they have the responsibility. It is a sovereign nation and this is an outside developer who has come in with a proposal that will never be built under the federal rules, so let’s just stop it before it gets started.

For more information, visit Grand Canyon Trust at grandcanyontrust.org.

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