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Posted: 07/07/2020
By: Kestrel Kunz

Photo Credit: Adam Haydock

In the ongoing saga of hydro dam developments proposed within striking distance of Grand Canyon National Park, American Whitewater is asking for help from the paddling community to stop a development that would impact the greater Grand Canyon area and its tributaries. Back in October 2019, we wrote an article outlining the proposal submitted by Phoenix-based hydroelectric company Pumped Hydro LLC to place two dams on the Little Colorado River, a tributary of the Colorado River's mighty Grand Canyon. This proposal was met with a large amount of pushback for the cultural impact on indigenous tribes, ecological impacts, and water use. To address these concerns, Pumped Hydro decided to file an alternative (yet equally problematic) proposal for a hydro development on Big Canyon, a tributary of the Little Colorado River. The Big Canyon project permit application has been accepted into the Federal Energy Regulation Commission's (FERC) registrar, initiating a public comment period on the project ending August 1 and we need members of the paddling community to step up and make their voices heard. 

When Pumped Hydro first filed their permit for the Little Colorado River, we knew that this would pose a large threat to one of the most beautiful rivers in the west. The Little Colorado is a tributary to the Grand Canyon and provides incredible opportunities to explore both on foot and by boat. The Little Colorado River has beautiful naturally occurring turquoise colored water at the bottom of skyward reaching canyon walls. For kayakers, it provides roughly 55 miles of class III/IV whitewater and paddlers have either paddled the entire stretch from the beginning of the river or hiked up from the confluence as part of a Grand Canyon trip. The run has been revered as a must-do desert river for any river enthusiast, and the proposed development threatens this gem's very existence. Realizing the immense opposition to a hydro development on the Little Colorado River, Pumped Hydro decided to look towards Big Canyon as an alternative.

Big Canyon is a tributary of the Little Colorado River which provides in-stream flows to the river as well as recreational opportunities for canyoneering. The project entails building a dam in Big Canyon and drilling wells to fill the dam in an attempt to alleviate the aquatic impacts associated with the Little Colorado project. However, this project has its own set of potentially detrimental impacts and should be dead on arrival. For starters, the project would take place on Navajo land and develop and flood indigenous land that has great cultural and spiritual significance towards several Native American tribes. The Navajo, Hopi, and Hualapai tribes have filed formal opposition to the proposed Little Colorado dams in 2019, and Stanley Pollack, a Navajo Nation attorney has spoken out against the most recent Big Canyon dam proposal on behalf of the nation stating "This [new proposal] is still a problem because the Little Colorado River Gorge is protected by The Navajo Nation for its cultural and wildlife resources". Howard Dennis, a clan leader of the Hopi village in Mishongnovi, has also spoken out against the project on behalf of the Hopi tribe stating, "I think [The Big Canyon Project] is going to be even worse because when you're sucking up groundwater, you're taking it from the springs". In addition, the proposed dams would flood hundreds of acres of land that are relied upon by local, rural communities and forever change the ecosystem of Big Canyon, the Little Colorado River, and the Grand Canyon itself.

The Big Canyon project will still have a variety of harmful impacts on the Little Colorado River and the Grand Canyon as it would rob these rivers of stream flows and lead to non-natural flow regimes. This would both be harmful to recreational opportunities and the humpback chub habitat, a species of fish that only recently made it off the endangered species list. Another concern with the project is the intensive use of groundwater it will take to make up for the evaporation losses. Because Big Canyon sits in the arid deserts of Arizona, groundwater takes thousands of years to accumulate and is both a valuable and scarce natural resource. Pumped Hydro states that they will access groundwater in order to make up for the evaporative losses, using approximately 3.2 to 4.8 billion gallons per year on top of surface water dams and depletions. However, it is believed these losses will be even higher due to the dams being built on fissured and faulted limestone that will cause leakage. This groundwater use is reckless considering the lack of rainfall in Arizona and the time scale at which these groundwater reserves fill. 

While these development proposals are frightening, the paddling community has a real and immediate opportunity to submit comments in opposition to this development. This is an opportunity to not only share our concerns about the recreational impacts that this development would have on a national treasure but also help amplify the voices of indigenous communities in the battle to preserve the cultural values of their land. Respectful comments to FERC opposing the project, and stating specific concerns relating to recreation, indigenous values, local communities, aesthetics, fisheries, stream flows, water quality, or other impacts would be most helpful.

Take Direct Action! Deadline is August 1st, 2020

1.) Go to FERC's eComment page, [], enter and submit your contact information and you'll get an email with a link to the comment form.


2.) Enter the Docket Number for the project: p-15024-000 and click search, then click the plus icon to add to select the Docket. 


3.) Write your comment. Share your connection with the Little Colorado River and/or Big Canyon; share the values you witness there that you are concerned about; you can ask for recreation, aesthetic, and water quality or other studies; and ask FERC to scrutinize and ultimately prevent these dams from being built.


4.) Click Send Comment! 

Authored by Angus Harley, AW's Colorado Intern, and Kestrel Kunz, Southern Rockies Stewardship Assistant

Kestrel Kunz

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