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Groups Oppose Plans to Dam AZ’s Little Colorado River

The Grand Falls, also known as Chocolate Falls, are a major feature of the 338-mile Little Colorado River in northern Arizona. (EasyArts/Adobe Stock)
The Grand Falls, also known as Chocolate Falls, are a major feature of the 338-mile Little Colorado River in northern Arizona. (EasyArts/Adobe Stock)
October 11, 2019

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Conservation groups say a proposal to build dams along Arizona's Little Colorado River could trigger an environmental disaster.

A Phoenix-based company has filed for a permit to construct two dams that would generate power through a process known as pumped hydro storage. It also would create a pair of reservoirs, stretching two miles up the Little Colorado River Gorge.

Alicyn Gitlin, conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter, said the project would threaten an endangered species, interfere with the Grand Canyon's already degraded hydrology and damage sites held sacred by two Arizona tribes.

"This happens to be in a place that has critical cultural significance to the Hopi and Navajo Nation," she said. "It is ecologically a terrible idea, because it is going to remove about 80% to 90% of endangered humpback chub spawning habitat."

The company seeking the permit, Pumped Hydro Storage, said the project would generate electricity by pumping water between the two dams. Hopi and Navajo tribe officials have not yet commented on the project. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has granted an initial permit to begin planning the project.

The project would create an upper dam, 240 feet tall and about 3,000 feet above the lower dam, which would be 140 feet tall. Turbines would be used to pump water to the generators.

Gitlin said the project would completely change the river's character.

"On top of all the effects that you would have on the river, you would also be losing all of that habitat. Over 4 1/2 miles of riverine habitat would be gone," she said. "And then, you would have effects downstream, such as changing temperature, changing sediment load, changing flood peak."

She said the result likely would wipe out the habitat of at least one endangered species that local groups have worked hard to save.

"The humpback chub is dependent upon the Little Colorado River as its main spawning habitat," she said, "and if we lost that population, it's very possible that that fish would be dependent upon artificial spawning in other locations to keep it going."

Pumped Hydro Storage does not yet own the water rights or land-use permits needed to proceed with construction. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is taking public comments on the permit through Nov. 22.

The text of the permit is online at federalregister.gov.

Mark Richardson, Public News Service - AZ