Construction of Dam Near Grand Canyon Will Harm Sacred Native American Sites and Wildlife, Critics Say

A proposed dam near the Grand Canyon would flood miles of the Little Colorado River Gorge, resulting in severe consequences for sacred Native American cultural sites and local wildlife, an environmental group has warned.

If the plan eventually gets the green light, the 24-story structure will be built across the Little Colorado River about 6 miles upstream from the point where it meets the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon National Park. In fact, the dam's planned location lies within the Navajo Nation Native American territory.

The project is the brainchild of Phoenix-based form Pumped Hydro Storage LLC. In May this year, the company filed an application for a preliminary permit for the dam—which would measure 240 feet high and 500 feet wide.

The plan also involves a second 140-foot-high dam as well as other infrastructure, such as turbine-generators and power lines. The developers say the project would be capable of producing 3,300-gigawatt hours of power.

According to the Hydropower Reform Coalition, any developer interested in a potential site for a project must first apply for a preliminary permit.

"A preliminary permit is like staking a claim," according to the Coalition. "It gives the permittee the exclusive right to apply for a license for a period of 36 months and conduct studies to determine whether to proceed with a license application. A preliminary permit, which authorizes such field studies, does not authorize any construction or guarantee the issuance of a project license in the event the permittee files a license application."

The preliminary permit for the Little Colorado River site has now been accepted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC,) meaning the project is one step closer to becoming a reality.

However, environmentalists are concerned about the damage that such a project could cause.

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD)—a national, non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild areas—has warned that the dam would cause flooding that has the potential to "eliminate" miles of river habitat for an endangered, federally protected fish known as the humpback chub, which is found in the Grand Canyon Basin.

The changed river flows resulting from the dam would damage one of the last preferred spawning areas for these fish, according to Taylor McKinnon, a senior public lands campaigner at the CBD.

"The Little Colorado River is the cradle for endangered humpback chub recovery," McKinnon told Newsweek. "Once widespread through the Colorado River Basin, today the largest of six remaining populations of humpback chub in the Basin is in the Little Colorado River (LCR) and its confluence with the Colorado River."

"According to the National Park Service, the Little Colorado River aggregation is the only known spawning population of humpback chub in Grand Canyon. Roughly 90 percent of the Grand Canyon humpback chub population is concentrated near the Little Colorado River confluence, where there is access to seasonally varied flows and temperatures."

McKinnon said that the LCR population is a source population for reintroduction in other areas. Any harm to the Little Colorado River population of humpback chub would also harm recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act.

According to McKinnon, the construction of the proposed dam could have the following impacts for the fish:

  • Flooding occupied river habitat for humpback chubs and other species.
  • Fragmenting fish populations by impeding movement up and downstream.
  • Altering downstream flows, sedimentation, and turbidity (or cloudiness.)
  • Direct mortality as chub are killed by water intake infrastructure.
  • Either dam, if they release cold water at the base of the reservoirs, could also reduce the temperature of the Little Colorado River water below thresholds for chub reproduction.
  • Stagnant warm surface water at reservoirs could be vectors for parasites that harm chubs

"The Little Colorado River drains an enormous watershed in northern and eastern Arizona. Throughout most of the watershed, and lower reaches thereof, it is undammed," McKinnon said. "As such, it still functions relatively naturally, with episodic floods and flash floods that pulse large volumes of flood water and heavy sediment loads through the river and into the Grand Canyon."

"The dam would disrupt those flood events, that natural sedimentation, and fundamentally disrupt the natural hydrology of the entire river ecosystem," he said. "It would also cause sediment accumulation behind the dam, which will require regular dredging in order to maintain storage capacity."

Meanwhile, the CBD says that the project would "industrialize" lands near two sacred cultural sites of the Hopi Tribe, whose reservation is entirely surrounded by the Navajo Nation territory.

One of these sites is known as Sipapu, a salt dome where the Hopi—who have been present in the area for thousands of years—believe humans arrived in this world, according to the Colorado College. The other is the Salt Trail, which enables access to Sipapu.

"The Little Colorado River gorge at and upstream of the confluence with the Colorado River is literally one of the most culturally important and sensitive places in the Grand Canyon region, if not the entire U.S. Southwest," McKinnon said.

"Infrastructure built near the Salt Trail would industrialize the area, which is now completely unindustrialized, rural, and remote. That build out includes power lines, a paved road, two dams and reservoirs, a massive rim-to-river access tunnel, a massive underground, under-river turbine, power-house and substation," he said.

The FERC says that public will be allowed to comment on, or seek to intervene in, the project until November 22.

"It's outrageous to even consider industrializing such an important area or damaging such important endangered species habitat," McKinnon said in a statement. "This would inflict profound cultural and biological harm. There will be an enormous effort to stop this dangerous proposal in its tracks."

This article was updated to include additional information from Taylor McKinnon.

Little Colorado River Gorge
The Little Colorado River Gorge near the Grand Canyon on June 23, 2013. JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images