Millions of Americans recognize the Grand Canyon as one of the most iconic landscapes on the planet. But this natural masterpiece of the Colorado River faces a battery of threats. A proposed industrial-scale construction project in the wild heart of the canyon, radioactive pollution from uranium mining, and a proposed expansion of groundwater pumping at Tusayan, all threaten the Grand Canyon’s wild nature and unique experience that belongs to every American.
The mighty Colorado River flows 1,450 miles from its headwaters atop Poudre Pass in Rocky Mountain National Park to the Gulf of California in Mexico. Draining over 246,000 square miles, quenching the thirst of over 35 million people, and fueling a $1.4 trillion dollar economy, the Colorado River is truly the lifeblood of the American Southwest.
Dominating a 277-mile stretch of the Colorado River in Northern Arizona, the Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most iconic landscapes. A World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon awes and inspires nearly five million visitors per year with its grandeur and expanse. It is a sought-after destination for recreation and rejuvenation, and is considered a sacred landscape to more than ten Native American tribes who have called the region home for millennia.
The Grand Canyon is one of our greatest symbols of the values of wild nature. The canyon represents more than 1.7 billion years of geologic majesty and is home to wildlife including bighorn sheep and mountain lion, and fish such as the endangered humpback chub. Dozens of creeks, springs, and tributaries connect with the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, including the Little Colorado, Kanab Creek, Havasu Creek, and Bright Angel Creek.
Three Main Threats to the Grand Canyon
Escalade Tramway to the Sacred Confluence
The Grand Canyon Escalade is a proposal to build a two-million square foot, industrial-scale construction project on the east rim of the canyon that includes a tram to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers. The Escalade project would forever damage the canyon’s remote, wild character. If the Escalade project were to move forward, 10,000 people per day could crowd a pair of walkways along the edge of the river in the canyon.
Navajo Nation Chairman Russell Begaye has publicly stated his opposition to the project. Further, the Navajo Nation’s Natural Resource Director, Moroni Benally, has stated that the confluence where the Colorado and Little Colorado rivers meet is “a place of significant spiritual value to the Navajo people,” and has even suggested the creation of the Nation’s first National Monument to protect this sacred area of the canyon. Additionally, the confluence is a sacred site to the Hopi, Zuni, Havasupai, and other tribes, and is one of the most picturesque and unique experiences in all of the Grand Canyon.
In October, 2017, the Navajo Tribal Council voted strongly in opposition to the proposed development, putting it on the shelf for the time being. Thanks to the amazing work by critical local partners Grand Canyon Trust and Save the Confluence, the Escalade project appears to had been dealt a serious blow.
Active and inactive uranium mines on the north and south rims of the canyon threaten clean water. Current proposals exist to revive some of the inactive mines, and expand the exploration of currently active mines.
The current moratorium on uranium mining around the Grand Canyon only applies to new mining claims.
Nearly two decades of monitoring has documented radioactive contamination of a key Grand Canyon creek by an abandoned mine that ceased operations in 1969.
Massive Development in Neighboring Town
Finally, a foreign investment group has been trying to expand the town of Tusayan, which lies just outside the south entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. The project includes a spa, dude ranch, hotels, and more than 2,200 homes – representing a 1,000 percent expansion of the current population.
This expansion would require substantial withdrawals of groundwater from the aquifer. Ongoing drought has dramatically affected this area of the country. Increased groundwater withdrawal could negatively impact ecologically important seeps and springs within the Grand Canyon itself.
Expansion at Tusayan should not move forward until a comprehensive review of local water resources, a determination that they are adequate to support the development without adverse impacts to the Colorado River and Grand Canyon National Park resources, and an enforceable plan is put into place to conserve and manage those resources sustainably. As of this time, the project is currently on hold, as the National Forest Service rejected permits to expand roads and infrastructure into the forest. But these threats never truly go away, and we must be diligent against any new proposals that will impact fragile water resources within Grand Canyon National Park.