While the whole of Ongtupqa (the Grand Canyon) is culturally and spiritually significant to many people, there is one spot in particular, not far from where the powdery turquoise waters of Paayu (the Little Colorado River) reach the much darker flow of Pisisvayu (the Colorado River), that is especially so to the Hopi. This place is called Sipapu, a deeply sacred location that marks the Hopi people’s emergence into this world. And it would sit underwater if a Phoenix hydroelectric outfit wins permission to build two dam projects along the Little Colorado.
At the end of September, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved preliminary permit proposals for Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC to explore development of what would become the Navajo Nation Salt Trail Canyon Pumped Storage Project and the Navajo Nation Little Colorado River Pumped Storage Project, the latter located less than half a mile from the boundary of Grand Canyon National Park. Each would involve damming a section of the Little Colorado, with additional dams utilized as part of the extended infrastructure.
Such activity would flood portions of the Little Colorado River Gorge, muddying the river’s iconic turquoise water, which is colored by the presence of dissolved travertine deposits during times of normal or low flow. Such flooding would affect recreation options and overtake the historic Hopi Salt Trail, used to access Sipapu. According to Sinjin Eberle, a communications director and campaign manager for American Rivers, a nonprofit that protects and preserves our nation’s waterways, it would also disturb essential wildlife habitat.
“There are four varieties of endangered fish in the Grand Canyon, and the Humpback Chub is one of the most successful reintroduction projects that has happened in the Canyon,” he says. “From an endangered species point of view, changing that ecosystem would do irreparable damage to the Humpback Chub and other endangered fish.”
Proposed dam poses a threat to sites sacred to native people
Eberle says that these environmental concerns are secondary to the project’s threats to the cultural and spiritual significance of the Little Colorado and its union with the Colorado. Beyond its importance to the Hopi, the area is deeply sacred to other Native people, including the Paiute, Zuni, and Navajo, who assign multiple meanings to the confluence as a place of prayer and connection to ancestors long gone.
The lower of the two proposed dam sites is about a mile from where a tramway, known as the Grand Canyon Escalade, was first proposed in 2012. That same year, a group of Navajo activists launched Save the Confluence, a grassroots organization dedicated to pushing back against the project, which would have included shopping, restaurants, and lodging for the nearly 10,000 visitors a day the development might attract. Though that project was finally defeated in 2017, when the Navajo Nation Council ultimately voted against it, the organization is now focused on halting this new threat to the emotional and spiritual well-being of the Navajo people.
Luckily, Eberle, among others in the conservation space, projects that developers will face an “uphill battle.” Right now, the FERC filings simply act as a placeholder to prevent others from developing in the area; Pumped Hydro Storage has three years to deal with miles of red tape, including the federal permitting process. They’d also have to construct infrastructure to access the potential dam locations, things like powerlines and roads that could support high traffic and heavy vehicles. And there’s financing—in its filing documents, Pumped Hydro Storage admits that the company has none; they’ve submitted preliminary permit proposals for several other locations, hoping that at least one will stick so they can begin seeking investors.
But none of this matters if they don’t receive a green light from the Navajo Nation, since both dam sites would exist within its boundaries. Given both the history of resistance to the Escalade project and other proposed developments in the area, along with a standing agreement between the Navajo and Hopi governments to respect each nation’s sacred sites, the project seems highly unlikely to take flight.
Public comment period and next steps for Little Colorado dam
Still, Eberle says that it’s important for the public to stay informed and involved. “These kinds of proposals, whether they are long shots or not, illustrate the need for securing permanent protection for our rivers,” he says. “As members of society, we drink water, we use power, and we have dependence on our natural resources, but there are some places that are just too nice, that are just too important to risk projects like this.”
While the projects are currently subject to a 60-day public comment period that began with their September 23 filing date, Eberle says that its better at this stage to focus on supporting the organizations working on the ground level, like American Rivers, Save the Confluence, Grand Canyon Trust, and the National Parks Conservation Association, as they’ll have more leverage at this stage. If plans proceed past the initial sixty days, another public comment period will open as part of the National Environmental Policy Act process; these organizations will then utilize their resources to rally more extensive opposition.
No matter what happens with the Little Colorado, Eberle hopes that people become engaged with ongoing efforts to protect our waterways. “I was on a Grand Canyon trip about a month and a half ago. As we passed by the confluence, I gave a speech to the rest of the crowd about, you know—here’s what we would have lost if we hadn’t stood up and fought that project; there’d be a mile-and-a-half-long tramway being constructed in the heart of the Grand Canyon, and at deep offense to the Native people who find that place so important,” he says. “Our efforts to protect places like this can’t go unbridled because proposals like this always come back—and without permanent protection, they are always going to be vulnerable.”
Photo: Calvin Weibel