Update: Little Colorado River Pumped Hydropower proposals

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

By Sinjin Eberle | June 4, 2020

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

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.
Credit: Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust
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:

“Pumped Hydro Storage LLC recently applied for a preliminary permit for a project adjacent to the river on the Navajo Nation. Manager Steve Irwin said the shift was in response to overwhelming criticism that building dams on the river would disrupt the habitat of the endangered humpback chub.”

The article then goes on to say:

“But Irwin said he won’t pursue the dams on the river if the Big Canyon proposal moves forward. Documents filed with the federal government estimate the project will cost between $10 million and $20 million for studies, tests, surveys and maps, and to construct four earthen and concrete dams that would hold back groundwater.”

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 by Sinjin Eberle
Little Colorado River | Photo by Sinjin Eberle
Conserving Clean Water, Protecting Rivers

2 responses to “Update: Little Colorado River Pumped Hydropower proposals”

  • Jagdeesh Pyati says:

    I oppose this project because it would destroy the beautiful canyon, damage the environment and desecrate Native American lands. FERC should immediately reject the proposal. I have seen the LRC Canyon and found it jaw-droppingly spectacular. I live in California, but the LCR and its canyon and gorge belong to all Americans, especially Native Americans. They have suffered enough.

  • Susan Strosahl says:

    Regarding: Pumped Hydro Storage, LLC Proposals
    I am against this proposal for massive extraction of local groundwater or any new construction, in Big Canyon, or the Little Colorado River (LC). I live in the watershed of the LC (off reservation, east of Flagstaff) and this could endanger the well used for my community. Do not grant this permit.
    The many reasons for not granting this proposal have been well layed out by many groups, not to mention the Navajo and Hopi Tribes. There are many people who rely on this watershed, tribal and non-tribal, to remain the way it is. We do not need or want a large infrastructure facility in and on our beautiful high country desert and water ways.

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