Why Is the Little Colorado River So Blue? — #GrandCanyon Trust

The turquoise waters of the Little Colorado River. Photo credit: Lyle Balequah/From the Earth Studio

Click the link to read the article on the Grand Canyon Trust website (Amanda Podmore):

The Little Colorado River is best known for its milky blue waters that flow into the mainstem Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. These waters carry so much life-giving significance. For millennia, they have provided physical and spiritual sustenance for Indigenous peoples and supported plants, wildlife, communities, and more.

Grand Falls Little Colorado River, Spring of 2010.

But the Little Colorado River is not always blue. Sometimes it runs as thick and brown as chocolate milk. With a little knowledge of the river’s annual peaks and lows and an eye on the weather gauge, you can predict whether it will be brown or that remarkable turquoise blue.

So why and when is the Little Colorado River so blue?

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation. The Colorado River’s flows and reservoirs are being impacted by climate change, and environmental groups are concerned about the status of the native fish in the river. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

The source of its milky blue waters

The Little Colorado River gets its blue color from dissolved calcium carbonate in the water. This mineral is found in chalk, antacids, eggshells, dark green vegetables, rocks, and more. In the Little Colorado River, calcium carbonate forms a type of limestone called travertine that creates white, pillowy deposits along the riverbed. Most of the turquoise-blue water in the Little Colorado River comes from springs 10 to 13 miles upstream of the confluence. Thanks to these groundwater-fed springs, the last 13 miles of the Little Colorado River flow year-round at an average rate of 220 cubic feet per second (cfs) until joining the mighty Colorado River, which has an average flow between 8,000 and 25,000 cfs!

The Little Colorado River’s year-round flows are important for the region’s largest population of humpback chub. The warm, cloudy waters make excellent habitat for this threatened fish species.

Little Colorado River. Photo credit: Sinjin Eberle via American Rivers

Other colors of the Little Colorado River

When the Little Colorado River begins its journey from its headwaters in the White Mountains, its waters are not yet blue. The clear mountain stream flows north into the desert lands below, picking up sediment, minerals, and debris along the way. But less than 20 miles from its source, the Little Colorado River dries up. And for the next 300 miles, the river relies on precipitation to send water downstream. Modern-day water use is a major culprit of this dry stretch of the Little Colorado River. Year-round flows return near Blue Spring, 13 miles upstream of the confluence.

During two high runoff periods each year — in the spring from snowmelt and in the late summer from monsoon rains — the Little Colorado River runs red. During these periods, from February to April and July to September, the Little Colorado River may spike to 18,000 cfs. At this runoff level, the water can be so thick and muddy that placing your hand just an inch below the surface of the water makes it invisible to the naked eye.

The cultural significance of the Little Colorado River’s blue waters

The Little Colorado River’s blue waters have been of deep cultural significance to Native peoples since time immemorial. At least 10 tribes have traditional connections to what Zuni people refer to as “the umbilical cord” of the world. For Hopi people, the Little Colorado River is the home of their emergence story, and its waters, springs, and salt remain important to this day. Adjacent Diné (Navajo) communities, whose land may be affected by proposed dam development, are considering a sacred site designation for the area to prevent development threats like the former Escalade tram proposal.

But to truly understand the importance of the Little Colorado River, I suggest you go directly to the source. Visit the Lifeways of the Little Colorado River collection to hear 11 Native voices share their personal and cultural ties to this life-sustaining river.

Coming Together to Help the #LittleColoradoRiver Thrive — @AmericanRivers

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and Colorado River; Credit: EcoFlight

From American Rivers (Rachel Ellis):

It’s late fall 2021 and I’m at the Tuba City Chapter House on the Navajo Nation for one of several community meetings that American Rivers, the Grand Canyon Trust, and local communities are hosting to explore ways to safeguard and sustain the Little Colorado River. The air is crisp and the sun peeks above the eastern horizon as we set up an outdoor meeting space designed to respect necessary Covid-19 precautions. Because this type of grassroots organizing has been nearly impossible for over a year, there is a tangible feeling of excitement as people gather to engage in conversations about this lifegiving watershed that supports much of present-day northern Arizona.

Little Colorado River community outreach meeting at the Tuba City Chapter House on the Navajo Nation; Credit: Mike Fiebig

The Little Colorado River (LCR) is essentially a misnomer—“little” only in title and by comparison to the Colorado River. The LCR basin is 27,000 square miles of high deserts, mesas, and mountains near the center of the Colorado Plateau. Its grandeur can be understood from various angles. As part of the larger Colorado Plateau, the LCR basin has the highest agricultural and ethnolinguistic diversity north of the Tropic of Cancer. The river itself originates in the White Mountains where its headwater springs have been designated as a sacred site by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. From there, the river drops over 5,000 feet as it flows northwest to its Confluence with the Colorado River deep within Grand Canyon. As it nears the mainstem Colorado, the LCR cuts steeply into limestone and sandstone, creating the spectacular lower LCR gorge. Springs in the lower gorge provide the cerulean baseflow of the LCR, which at the Confluence with the Colorado is approximately 158,000 acre feet annually—equivalent to over half of Nevada’s allocation of Colorado River water.

Lower Little Colorado River Gorge; Credit: EcoFlight

With monsoon and spring runoff events, the LCR can swell to over 400 times its baseflow. The river is a primary contributor of sediment to the Grand Canyon and critical habitat for the threatened humpback chub. In truth, the cultural and ecological significance of the LCR and its watershed is difficult to overstate. It is the ancestral or present-day homelands of at least eight tribes, including Hopi, Zuni, Diné, Southern Paiute, Cibecue and White Mountain Apache, Havasupai, and Hualapai, each of whom have maintained relationships with the LCR since time immemorial.

The uniqueness of this high desert river and watershed is also demonstrated by its resilience. Until the early 20th century, the LCR flowed year-round for its entire 340-mile course. It is now intermittent except for three short stretches. Sixty years of industrial groundwater withdrawal has impacted aquifers critical to springs, tributaries, and drinking water in an increasingly arid region. The Grand Canyon Escalade project proposed a massive tourist attraction at the remote and sacred Confluence of the LCR and Colorado River, which led American Rivers to list the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as America’s Most Endangered River in 2015. Coal-fired generating stations polluted the air and drove strip mining in the basin. Uranium mining and milling contaminated water sources and continues to impact human, animal, and plant health.

Now, hydroelectric dam proposals threaten the lower LCR. With total disregard for tribal sovereignty, Pumped Hydro Storage LLC applied for three preliminary permits in 2019 and 2020 from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to dam the LCR and its tributaries. While two of the permits have been surrendered, the company is awaiting a preliminary permit for the Big Canyon project. Despite objection from the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe, the Big Canyon project proposes four dams and four reservoirs that would be filled with groundwater from the same aquifer that sustains the sacred springs and iconic milky-blue waters of the lower LCR.

Little Colorado River near the Confluence; Credit: Sinjin Eberle

The concentrated harm to the LCR caused by colonization, coupled with the ongoing uncertainty of what threat will have to be fought off next, makes the LCR a poster child for environmental injustice. But the river and LCR communities persist. Save the Confluence stopped the Grand Canyon Escalade and continues to advocate for the Confluence as a sacred area. Black Mesa Trust advocates for the ancient aquifers in the LCR basin and their related springs that are central to Hopi religion. Tó Nizhóní Ání protects the sacred lands and waters of Black Mesa, a central recharge area for the LCR. And Tolani Lake Enterprises rebuilds the Indigenous food sovereignty movement on the banks of the LCR.

Such grassroots efforts hold the barrage of threats to the LCR at bay while also highlighting the need for durable and permanent protections for this remarkable river and the life it supports. Building on our previous work in the basin, in the Spring of 2020 American Rivers joined LCR communities and allies, like the Grand Canyon Trust, to explore ways to safeguard the river’s cultural and natural resources—with particular focus on the lower LCR—in ways that align with the needs and wants of local communities. For a year and a half, we’ve been working collaboratively to identify pathways to protect the LCR while upholding local autonomy and traditional land uses. This includes preventing commercial and industrial developments in the area, such as the Big Canyon proposal, that are unwanted by local communities. Our guiding belief is that thoughtful community engagement and collective management approaches can help protect the lower LCR, surrounding sacred sites, and all living beings for years to come. By engaging individual community members through in-depth conversations, hosting in-person and virtual community meetings, and providing information on possible protective pathways, we are collaborators in a growing movement to protect the LCR. Looking ahead, we are committed to supporting this movement through expanded community engagement and leadership until permanently protecting the LCR simply becomes inevitable.

LCR advisor, Larry Foster, discussing options for safeguarding the LCR; Credit: Amanda Podmore

As I drive away from the meeting in Tuba City, I am reminded that despite overuse, unregulated groundwater withdrawal, impacts from industrial energy production, and the increasing effects of climate change, the LCR is alive. It is sustained as much by monsoons, ancient groundwater, and high elevation snow as it is by the collective stories, ceremonies, and traditions of its Indigenous communities. Often described as an umbilical cord, the LCR is a literal lifeway in the region and, as such, it deserves more than simply being resilient. It deserves to thrive.

Confluence of the Little Colorado River and the Colorado River. Climate change is affecting western streams by diminishing snowpack and accelerating evaporation. The Colorado River’s flows and reservoirs are being impacted by climate change, and environmental groups are concerned about the status of the native fish in the river. Photo credit: DMY at Hebrew Wikipedia [Public domain]

#LittleColoradoRiver Dam Developer Surrenders Two of Three Dam Proposals — The #GrandCanyon Trust #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Carbonate blue water near Salt Trail campground on the Little Colorado river. Photo credit: Adam Haydock via the Grand Canyon Trust

From The Grand Canyon Trust (Amanda Podmore):

Good news! After two years of tireless advocacy led by the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, and Hualapai Tribe, a would-be hydroelectric dam developer has requested the cancellation of two preliminary permits for dams on the lower Little Colorado River above the confluence with the Colorado River inside the Grand Canyon.

Pumped Hydro Storage LLC sent two letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requesting the permits for its Little Colorado River and Salt Trail Canyon proposals be surrendered, citing strong opposition from the Navajo Nation, environmentalists, and others, as well as investment risks. This news comes two years after the developer first proposed the projects on Navajo Nation land in a region of deep cultural importance to many tribes.

Developer failed to work with tribes

Despite community opposition to the two dam proposals and interventions and objections from the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the Hualapai Tribe, Native organizations like Save the Confluence, and conservation organizations including the Grand Canyon Trust, FERC awarded preliminary permits for both the Little Colorado River and Salt Trail Canyon dam proposals. The developer was not required to get consent from the Navajo Nation or even consult with tribes, underscoring deep flaws in the permitting process. The company’s decision to surrender the permits for these two projects is a testament to the hard work of tribes, community organizers, and concerned citizens like you who took action and submitted comments. Thank you.

A river too fragile for dams

Had these hydroelectric dam proposals moved forward, the consequences on this arid landscape would have been severe. The lower Little Colorado River flows perennially into the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and its warm turquoise-blue waters shelter the endangered humpback chub when it is spawning.

The lower Little Colorado River is a spiritual place best left untouched by development, as grassroots community members and tribes have requested. It is home to the Hopi place of emergence along with innumerable other cultural sites. Upstream dams could alter this place of reverence and beauty.

Two down, one more dam to go

Map credit: The Grand Canyon Trust

Unfortunately, the developer’s request to surrender these two permits is a reminder of the work ahead. The developer is still waiting to hear back on a preliminary permit for the Big Canyon dam proposal on a tributary to the Little Colorado River. The Big Canyon dam remains the developer’s priority — and our biggest concern. The Big Canyon dam proposal, which is also on Navajo Nation land and opposed by many tribes, would require pumping groundwater and likely alter the blue waters of the Little Colorado River.

West Drought Monitor map July 27, 2021.

Drought underlines the imprudence of the Big Canyon dam

The developer is proposing to pump about 44,000 acre feet (about 14.3 billion gallons) of groundwater, plus an additional 10,000 to 15,000 acre feet (3.2 to 4.8 billion gallons) per year to make up for water lost to evaporation in order to fill the Big Canyon dam in an arid landscape already facing extreme drought and water restrictions. Currently, there are potable water restrictions across the Navajo Nation. It is alarming that the developer is continuing to push a proposal to pump additional groundwater to power this project in order to produce electricity for distant city centers in the middle of this drought.

It is unknown when FERC will make a decision on the Big Canyon dam proposal’s preliminary permit application, which, if granted, would initiate a 3-year period for a feasibility study. What we do know is we will continue to stand with local communities and fight this unwanted and inappropriate proposal tooth and nail. If you haven’t already, please sign the petition to Keep the Canyon Grand and join our action alert network. We’ll let you know when there’s an opportunity to speak up.

Navajo Nation Sees Farming Renaissance During #Coronavirus Pandemic — KUNC #COVID19

The $1 billion Navajo-Gallup water pipeline will take 12 years to build and could serve as many as 250,000 people a year by 2040, officials say. Image via Cronkite News.

From KUNC (Laurel Morales):

Historically Navajos have lived off the land. But decades of assimilation, forced relocation and dependence on federal food distribution programs changed that.

Navajo farmer Tyrone Thompson is on a mission to help people return to their roots. He’s even taken to social media to teach traditional farming techniques.

In a recent video he demonstrates how to layer organic matter to turn dry clay into rich fertile soil.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the Navajo Nation a food desert. People travel up to 40 miles to get their groceries. But Thompson says they don’t have to.

“As we see the shelves emptying of food and toilet paper we kind of reconnect to our roots,” Thompson says. “Some of the tools that were given by our elders and our ancestors — our planting stick and our steering sticks — those are our weapons against hunger and poverty and sickness.”

Navajo Nation files lawsuit against the U.S. @EPA over the Clean Water Act #DirtyWaterRule

From The Navajo Nation Facebook page:

The Navajo Nation filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, arguing that the recent 2020 Waters of the United States rule significantly diminishes the number and extent of Navajo waters protected by the Clean Water Act in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. The new rule could also adversely impact the amount of federal funding that the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency receives for its water programs.

“At this point in time, with climate change occurring around the world, it’s more prudent than ever to protect our land, water and air. We, as Diné People, have a duty to preserve and conserve our natural resources to ensure that our future generations have access to clean water, air and land. The previous 2015 Waters of the United States rule provided clarity in protecting our Nation’s waters. Therefore, we strongly oppose and disagree with the revised WOTUS,” said President Nez.

The Nez-Lizer Administration is proposing to use $300 million from the CARES Act funding that the Navajo Nation received for water infrastructure and agriculture projects, which will require clean water resources to development and construct.

“Our Navajo people always say that water is life, and that’s very true. When we plan for any type of water projects, we are planning for future generations, not just for today or tomorrow. Clean water is a necessity for life,” said Vice President Myron Lizer.

“Clean water should be protected not only by the Clean Water Act, but also by the Navajo Nation’s treaty rights. It is a necessity of life that is vital to preservation of Navajo culture and tradition,” added Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul.

Department Manager for Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs Ronnie Ben said, “Since the inception of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency’s water programs, our main purpose and goal has always been to protect our Nation’s water sources. However, our job becomes difficult when the federal government rolls back environmental regulations in favor of polluters. We currently have organizations on the Navajo Nation who are not in compliance with Navajo Nation and Federal environmental laws and laxing Waters of the United States doesn’t help bring these companies into compliance.”

President Nez and Vice President Lizer thank Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul, Navajo Nation Department of Justice Attorney Michael Daughtry, Contract Attorney Jill Grant, and Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency water program personnel for their efforts in bringing this suit on behalf of the Navajo people.

Update: #LittleColoradoRiver pumped hydropower proposals — @AmericanRivers

From American Rivers (Sinjin Eberle):

We will intervene, again, in the FERC preliminary permit process, but you can help too.

Little Colorado River Upstream towards Big Canyons. Photo credit: Sinjin Eberle

As we wrote in October, a Phoenix-based developer has proposed to build a pumped hydropower facility on and above the Little Colorado River in Arizona, one of the major tributaries to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Because this is an energy-related project, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is the federal agency that would permit the project. The developer, Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC, actually applied for preliminary permits for two complete projects within the canyon, holding their place in line for two possible locations in the same area.

In November, we filed our comments with FERC, opposing the projects on a number of grounds. First and foremost, the idea of building new dams, reservoirs, and other related infrastructure (imagine the pipes, wires, roads, and other structures needed for such a facility) on such a major tributary of the Colorado River would be a destructive, resource intensive, and in all likelihood, impossible, endeavor. Secondly, the facilities would be situated firmly within the Navajo Nation, on Navajo land – yet the Navajo were barely even consulted on the project prior to the permit applications being submitted to FERC, and have since come out strongly against the projects being built on their lands, and very close to one of the most significant cultural sites to the Hopi as well. Lastly, the Little Colorado River is home to a major humpback chub recovery project, a fish on the brink of being down-listed from Endangered to Threatened due to the success of the program.

Including from American Rivers, the proposal generated a wide body of opposition from sources who don’t often speak out against projects like this, such as the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Interior, multiple Tribal Nations and the two local Navajo Chapters in the area, multiple conservation groups, and even Arizona’s Department of Game and Fish. Basically, nobody outside of the developer feels that these projects are warranted, or even a very good idea, let alone feasible.

Big Canyon Pumped Hydro Project #15024-000 | Credit: FERC permit application via American Rivers

Now, Pumped Hydro Storage has applied for a new project with FERC (Permit 15024-000), which would be located not within the Little Colorado River, but in Big Canyon, a tributary to the Little Colorado about 23 miles west of Tuba City, Arizona. Unlike the original proposal, in this new one Pumped Hydro Storage is proposing to extract groundwater, bring it to the surface where it would rest in three different surface reservoirs, and build a fourth, lower reservoir and a variety of pipes and penstocks and other infrastructure to generate electricity. Here is how it is described in the permit application:

The proposed project would be located entirely on Navajo Nation land and consist of the following new facilities:

  • A 450-foot-long, 200-foot-high concrete arch dam (Upper West Dam)
  • A 1,000-foot-long, 150-foot-high earth filled dam (Middle Dam)
  • A 10,000-foot-long, 200-foot-high concrete arch dam (Upper East Dam)
    • each of which would impound three separate upper reservoirs with a combined surface area of 400 acres and a total storage capacity of 29,000 acre-feet of water
  • A 600-foot-long, 400-foot-high concrete arch dam (Lower Dam) that would impound a lower reservoir with a surface area of 260 acres and a total storage capacity of 44,000 acre-feet of water
  • Three 10,000-foot-long, 30-foot-diameter reinforced concrete penstocks;
  • An 1,100-foot-long, 160-foot-wide, 140-foot-high reinforced concrete powerhouse housing nine 400-kilowatt pump-turbine generators
  • And a whole lot more associated infrastructure, including a new 15-mile paved road, powerlines, a 30-ft diameter tunnel, and more.
Map Credit: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust

Finally, an additional twist, as reported in a recent Associated Press article, the developer concedes that there was overwhelming opposition to his original proposal, and that he would consider pulling the proposals in the Little Colorado River if this Big Canyon proposal were allowed to move forward. From the article:

The article then goes on to say:

Many of the reasons that Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC’s initial proposal shouldn’t move forward apply to this new proposal as well; namely that the project would be built on Navajo Nation lands, and neither the local Chapter, nor the Navajo Nation government, have given their permission to construct the project on their lands. Second, the idea of pumping significant volumes of groundwater from one of the most arid regions of the country to profit from cheap electricity is misguided, at best. And just like the first round of proposals, destruction of significant Hopi holy sites, as well as threatening critical humpback chub and other fish habitat, through the massive extraction of local groundwater, is simply not acceptable.

In addition to how environmentally destructive and wasteful these projects are, this proposal is especially tone-deaf and exploitive at this moment in our history. The Navajo Nation is grappling with some of the highest number of cases, and deaths per capita, from the novel Coronavirus pandemic. One of the reasons why the outbreak has impacted the Navajo so heavily is the lack of readily available clean water. In fact, in the western Navajo Nation, the lack of basic infrastructure to deliver water to people’s homes is sorely lacking, and most of the people in that area have to haul water themselves many miles to have any at all. The idea of building expansive infrastructure to extract scarce groundwater for a hydropower project that extracts the resource and the capital from it, when people around the project who lack that access to that very resource are working hard to defend their communities against a deadly virus, could not be more misguided.

It is important to understand that a preliminary permit only allows the developer to hold a location for a potential future proposal. It is not a license application. In fact, a preliminary permit is not even required to submit a license application or receive a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) hydropower license. To learn more about hydropower licensing, visit the Hydropower Reform Coalition’s website.

We will intervene, again, in the FERC preliminary permit process, but you too can help by taking action here.

While it is unlikely that this project will ever advance past this phase, proposals like this underscore the importance of permanently protecting our last, best rivers like the Little Colorado.

Little Colorado River. Photo credit: Sinjin Eberle via American Rivers