The Navajo Nation, along with a committee of sheep and cattle ranchers in the Western Navajo Agency, issued formal letters opposing the latest proposal by a Phoenix developer to construct a series of hydroelectric dams along the Little Colorado River.
“Here we go again,” said Rita Bilagody, spokesperson for a Navajo Nation grassroots organization Save the Confluence. She said she was outraged that the people who call the northwestern corner of the Navajo Nation home have to fight yet again to preserve their lands, waters and sacred places.
“This is another outside developer who professes to do all these things for us,” she said.” But it doesn’t benefit us, it’s for them.”
Pumped Hydro Storage LLC, the brainchild of two Phoenix-area engineers, in November proposed two dams in the river gorge near the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers.
The dams, west of Cameron and four river miles upstream from the confluence, would provide on-demand hydroelectric power by running water from the lower dam through a turbine generator plant. The water would be pumped back to the upper dam to begin the cycle again.
The proposal, known as the Navajo Nation Salt Trail Canyon Pumped Storage Project, met with swift opposition from tribes and environmentalists. Opponents decried plans to withdraw water for generating electricity in an area wracked by a long-term drought, and cited its probable threats to the endangered humpback chub, among other ecological impacts.
Tribal cultures would also pay a heavy price. About 11 tribes maintain cultural ties to the nearby Grand Canyon as well as the confluence. In addition to the threats to cultural sites and springs, Sipapu, located near Salt Trail Canyon, is a cultural and religious site of great importance to the Hopi Tribe and would likely have sustained damage.
The Hopi Tribe, along with the Havasupai and Hualapai tribal governments, quickly issued opposition letters of their own.
The Little Colorado River watershed has been under adjudication for more than 40 years, and the dam project would likely have caused havoc with the ongoing court proceedings to accommodate any possible requests for water within the watershed.
Developers try a different approach
Amid the opposition, Pumped Hydro Storage submitted a new application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in March. Under the new plan, developers would construct the dams, now numbering four, in a side tributary canyon called Big Canyon, about 23 miles west of Tuba City.
The revised project also calls for three wells to be drilled to fill the reservoirs and keep them full with up to 73,000 acre-feet of water. (One acre-foot is equivalent to filling a football field with 1 foot of water.)
The turbine generating plant, switchyards and electric lines to run the power out to the grid, roads and other such support infrastructure would also be built. The entire footprint of the project would be on Navajo lands.
Proponents of the project said it would bring badly-needed jobs and infrastructure to the Navajo Nation as well as a renewable source of electric power.
MORE: Facing concerns about proposal, company eyes a different canyon
On June 9, the FERC granted preliminary approval for Pumped Hydro Storage LLC to begin a feasibility study for the project.
Tribes, local governments voice opposition
The Navajo Nation’s notice of intervention said FERC had altered the name of the project from Navajo Nation Big Canyon Pumped Storage Project to its present name, Big Canyon Pumped Storage Project. The tribe wrote that “the proposed project is not in any way affiliated with the Navajo Nation and the Nation has played no role in the development of this project.”
The six-page letter also noted that the nation’s water rights, currently being adjudicated by a special master in the Maricopa County Superior Court, could be damaged along with cultural assets, endangered and culturally important species, and traditional land uses.
Navajo officials also said that because the entire project would be on Navajo trust lands, “intervention is necessary so that the Nation can fully protect its interests.” That would be in the form of government-to-government consultation with the commission before any final decisions are made.
“President Jonathan Nez’s position remains the same,” said Jared Touchin, communications director for the Navajo president and vice president. “President Nez supports the local/nearby communities. If the impacted communities don’t support it, then he will respect their decision.”
Native activists, environmentalists weigh in
The group Save the Confluence swiftly responded to what they saw as a new threat to their ancestral lands. The grassroots group successfully defeated an attempt to develop a resort and tramway near the confluence.
William “Willy” Longreed, a Navajo Nation citizen whose home community is the Bodaway/Gap Chapter near the proposed dam sites, said the project as “all money.” He said the confluence is considered an area where people go to pray, and he doesn’t believe that non-Natives understand that.
“We don’t worship like they do,” he said.
The Grand Canyon Trust is preparing to send its opposition materials to FERC. Among other concerns, Roger Clark, Grand Canyon program director for the trust, wrote that the power plant would take groundwater from the same aquifer that feeds the springs known for the aquamarine hue that can be found in the Little Colorado River.
The Center for Biological Diversity also issued an intervention letter. While the Center strongly supports the development of renewable energy production and needed energy storage,”we do not support projects, such as the proposed Big Canyon … Project, which are poorly sited in remote areas with highly sensitive environmental resources that would also increase the need for new long-distance transmission lines and result in associated energy losses and waste.”
Bilagody, a Navajo, said Navajo people have seen what Peabody Coal did with all the water they took to mine coal and run the now-closed Navajo Generating Station.
“When they generate electricity with our water and our coal, they sent it to Phoenix and Los Angeles,” she said. “But we didn’t benefit from that.”
The nonprofit Public Power noted that 15,000 of the 55,000 homes in the Navajo Nation lack electricity.
The confluence is sacred not only to the Navajo Nation but to Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai and the New Mexico Pueblos, Bilagody said.
“Our emergence stories comes from there,” she said.
The area is also considered a traditional cultural property, according to a resolution issued by the District III Grazing Committee, a sub-governmental entity of the Western Navajo Agency.
“The permit may impact the cultural resources of the Navajo Nation,” the committee said in its resolution opposing the dam project.
“With the pandemic, a light was brought onto people on the reservation and how we need water — water is life,” said Bilagody. She said she’s been advocating for the same Indian Country issues of water, land and injustice since the 1970s and is still fighting he same issues in 2020.
“We still live here,” she said, “and we’re going to fight this.”
Comments will be accepted through Monday, Aug. 3. Leave a comment at this site and refer to project number P–15024–000.
Debra Utacia Krol covers Indigenous issues in Arizona and the Southwest. Reach the reporter at [email protected] or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.
Coverage of tribal issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation and the Water Funder Initiative.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.