Hydropower Dams Threaten the Little Colorado River

The Little Colorado River is one of the largest tributaries of the Colorado River. This scenic river runs from the White Mountains, across the Painted Desert, through ancestral lands of numerous Tribes in the region, including the Diné (Navajo), Hopi, Apache, Havasupai, Hualapai, Zuni, and others and is integral to the cosmology of several Tribes. Milky turquoise waters associated with the presence of minerals like calcium carbonate make this river uniquely beautiful. Aside from its beauty and cultural importance, the Little Colorado River supports spawning grounds and critical habitat for the endangered humpback chub (Gila cypha) fish species. This species has faced mounting pressures linked to the Glen Canyon Dam and the introduction of harmful, nonnative trout to the Colorado River.

Four dams were proposed along the Little Colorado River last summer (July 2019) and a second project—the Big Canyon Pumped Storage Project—was recently proposed (March 2020) to develop four different dams and flood Big Canyon, a tributary of the Little Colorado River.

These “pumped storage” projects are being proposed across Arizona by speculators who want to create energy from hydropower. Pumped storage projects move water between two reservoirs. When energy is needed, water flows down from a higher reservoir to a lower one. When energy is not being used, water is pumped back to the top. There are losses to infiltration and evaporation, causing the system to need regular additions of water.

Despite strong opposition to the Little Colorado River projects from Southwestern Tribes, conservation organizations, and the U.S. Department of Interior, preliminary permits for the first two proposals, the Salt Trail Canyon and Little Colorado River projects, were issued to Pumped Hydro Storage LLC in May 2020. These preliminary permits allow the company exclusive rights to conduct feasibility studies to determine if they want to proceed with the next stages of permitting and development. The preliminary permits do not grant development rights or even access to the locations.

In response to serious concerns about damming the Little Colorado River itself, Pumped Hydro Storage LLC filed a second preliminary permit application for the Big Canyon Pumped Storage Project in March 2020. Yet, this alternative still imperils the Little Colorado River by extracting groundwater that feeds the river’s turquoise springs. The reservoirs would be filled and maintained with groundwater that would be retained behind the dams and allowed to evaporate.

The Little Colorado River and Big Canyon would be flooded as a result of this hydropower venture, altering and industrializing these iconic landscapes forever while destroying their ecological and cultural values. The preliminary permit application to flood Big Canyon was accepted by FERC in June 2020 and the comment period closed on August 3, 2020.  If the Commission approves the permit, like they did with the Little Colorado River permits, Pumped Hydro Storage LLC will be able to conduct feasibility studies and then submit a license application. These projects will pose real harm to environmental and cultural resources in the area.

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