Proposed Hydropower Dams on Little CO River Stopped (AZ)

Published 8/3/2021  |  American Whitewater

Little Colorado River. Photo by Kestrel Kunz.

By: Kestrel Kunz

Returning Home to Good News 

Last week, I returned from a 19-day Grand Canyon trip to learn that two proposed hydropower projects on the Little Colorado River had been formally abandoned. On July 26, Pumped Hydro Storage LLC officially surrendered their two preliminary permits for the Salt Trail Canyon and Little Colorado River Pumped Storage Projects. These two projects received preliminary permits from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in 2019 and if completed, would have inundated 4.5 miles of the Little Colorado and created 4 dams up to 240 feet high. American Whitewater and our members were among hundreds of commenters that opposed these hydropower projects, including multiple native tribes whose sacred lands would have been irrevocably destroyed.

When our group of 8 friends arrived at the confluence of the Little Colorado River we paused to acknowledge the rich and precarious history of the Little Colorado’s pristine blue waters. Our comrade and filmmaker, Courtney Blackmer-Raynolds, shared with us her experience producing The Confluence, a documentary that explores the confluence’s cultural, emotional, and spiritual significance to the Navajo people. Her film, released in 2016, helped shed light on the ill-conceived Grand Canyon Escalade Project that would have built a mega-resort funneling 10,000 people a day in trams to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at the sacred confluence. In 2017, the Navajo Nation Council voted to kill the project, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last far-fetched development proposal they would have to fight on the LCR.

Following Courtney’s fascinating recount, I provided a somber update on the recent hydropower onslaught on the Little Colorado River and its tributaries. In a span of less than a year, Pumped Hydro Storage LLC applied for three different pumped hydropower projects, two on the Little Colorado itself and one on Big Canyon. The applications were put forward without consideration of sacred and cultural lands, sensitive fish species, outstanding recreational opportunities, and a reckless depletion of groundwater resources. Nonetheless, the FERC approved the preliminary permits for the Little Colorado River in May 2020. The Big Canyon application is still being processed over a year after its submission and the applicant believes the delay is due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A week before we pushed off from Lee’s Ferry, the FERC had issued a warning to Pumped Hydro Storage confirming that their required annual reports for the two Little Colorado River dams were overdue and, if not filed within thirty days, their preliminary permits would be revoked. With guarded expectations, I shared this glimmer of good news with our river family and soon after our return to “rim world” we were elated to discover the official surrender of the preliminary permits.

The Battle Isn’t Over 

Pumped Hydro Storage has made it very clear that the Big Canyon pumped storage project is now their priority. In the company’s July 26 letter to FERC, they said that “Big Canyon project in comparison [to the Little Colorado projects] will not install a dam on the Little Colorado River and has a much greater likelihood to be accepted by all stakeholders. For this reason, we will focus our resources on this project.” While we can appreciate the recognition of the detrimental impacts to the Little Colorado River, the proposed development in Big Canyon is just as preposterous. The Big Canyon Pumped Hydro Storage Project would pump already dwindling groundwater supplies to fill four reservoirs and flood 660 acres of sacred indigenous land. The groundwater that would be turned into commercial hydroelectricity would be slurped directly from the aquamarine springwater that feeds the Little Colorado River between Big Canyon and the confluence with the Grand Canyon. If Pumped Hydro is aiming to reduce ecological, cultural, and recreational impacts to the Little Colorado River, the Big Canyon Project is not the answer. Many watchful and wary eyes will be needed this year to get ahead of the proposed development in Big Canyon. American Whitewater is tracking this every step of the way and will keep the river community updated.

News of the surrendered preliminary permits was first reported here by Save the Confluence, a tribal-led organization dedicated to protecting the confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River.

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