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Little CO River Dams Receive Preliminary Permits, New Proposal Submitted (AZ)

Posted: 06/21/2020
by Kestrel Kunz

In October of 2019, we reported that Phoenix-based hydroelectric company, Pumped Hydro Storage, submitted applications to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for preliminary permits for two different hydroelectric projects in the Little Colorado River basin. At the end of May, both proposals received approval for their preliminary permits despite formal intervention from Native American tribes, American Whitewater, many of our members, and numerous environmental organizations. Thank you to those of you who provided your comments to FERC. These comments are on record and will help the continued fight against these dams. 


While preliminary permits are rarely denied, it is unfortunate that a project so detrimental to paddling, ecology, and cultural values would be allowed to move forward. Over the past year we have had several policy discussions with Congressional offices on the need for a more rigorous review process for preliminary permits than the one that exists. Projects like those proposed on the Little Colorado River, and others like those proposed on the Bear River in Idaho or Ernie's Gorge on the North Fork Snoqualmie in Washington, should be denied at the start and not proceed forward with the expensive and time-consuming environmental review process that ensues. Preliminary permits only approve the development of a feasibility analysis for the proposed dams and do not allow for construction. The hydroelectric company has three years to complete their studies that assess environmental, cultural, social, and other impacts. Once the studies are completed the applicant can file a formal license application that is subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act. In our view, we don't need to see this process play out to know that the impacts would be unfathomable. 


The proposed dams would be just miles from the Grand Canyon National Park boundary, something that the project proponent has tried to hide in their messaging. However, any paddler that has floated the Grand Canyon or explored the Little Colorado River knows just how sacred and special this river canyon is. The Little Colorado River provides critical habitat to humpback chub, which only recently made it off the endangered species list due to recovery efforts in the Little Colorado. The river canyon is a sacred, cultural place for Native American tribes, including the Navajo, Hopi, and Hualapai Nations, who have all expressed opposition to the proposed dams. The travertine pools and stunning scenery of the Little Colorado makes it a must-do detour for paddlers and hikers alike as part of their journey down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Instead of hiking up the river from the confluence with the Grand Canyon, paddlers can also make an epic 55-mile journey down the Little Colorado from Cameron, AZ, enjoying Class III-IV whitewater in turquoise colored water surrounded by magnificent cliff walls. Check out these great photos from a 2008 decent by Rocky Contos!


Meanwhile, in a strategic move, Pumped Hydro Storage submitted yet another preliminary application for multiple dams on Big Canyon, a tributary of the Little Colorado near the previously proposed dam sites. The proposed project would deplete surface water flows to the Little Colorado and have significant, long-term impacts on groundwater within the watershed; Pumped Hydro is proposing to pump 3.2 to 4.8 billion gallons of ground water per year on top of the surface water dams and depletions. Similar to the Little Colorado, Big Canyon is recognized by Native American tribes for its cultural and historical significance and is home to critical habitat for humpback chub. 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, and the Grand Canyon itself. The hydropower company has stated that the Big Canyon dams would be in replace of the Little Colorado dams, but it is not lost on us that dams within Big Canyon would have detrimental impacts to this important canyon and its downstream counterparts. Dams should not be allowed, or even considered, in the greater Grand Canyon area, period. 


The next step in the process for the Little Colorado Dams is the applicant will need to file a Notice of Intent and Pre-Application Document to proceed forward with their proposal. While there is no immediate opportunity to take action on the Little Colorado River dams, American Whitewater is reviewing and preparing comments on the Big Canyon dam and will keep the paddling community updated with guidance on how to formally submit comments to FERC. With your help, we will work to ensure that no dams are built within the greater Grand Canyon area and that these special places are protected now and for future generations. 


Kestrel Kunz