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.
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.
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.
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.
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.