Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Development Plans Raise Water Concerns at Grand Canyon

The water from Dripping Springs in the Grand Canyon National Park supports creature for miles around.
Claudine LoMonaco
The water from Dripping Springs in the Grand Canyon National Park supports creature for miles around.

Larry Stevens is an evolutionary biologist. For the last 41 years, he’s dedicated much of his life to the study and salvation of springs, little spots where water bubbles out of the earth.

Stevens stands in huge alcove carved out of a sandstone cliff on a remoter trail in Grand Canyon National Park. He holds a measuring cup under a stream of water that drips from a cluster of bright green ferns.

“Dripping Springs is a fairly small spring,” Stevens says. “We’re looking at half a gallon a minute of flow.”

And yet, he says creatures for miles around depend on the water that collects in the three-foot wide pool below. Other Grand Canyon springs can be enormous, gushing thousands of gallons per minute. Whatever their size, Stevens says springs play a key roll in supporting the surrounding landscape, especially in the dry west.

“Springs are suprisingly numerous in the western U.S., but many Springs have been heavily affected by human beings,” Stevens says. “They’ve been modified for grazing and livestock, for water supplies for housing, and the ground water tables are declining in many cases so the springs are drying up.”

He says scientists estimate 90 percent of springs in the Western US have been devastated. He says that’s part of what makes the springs in the Grand Canyon so precious.

“So having a large landscape like Grand Canyon in which many of the springs are in almost pristine condition is a remarkable laboratory for understanding how the ecology of these eco-systems works,” says Stevens.

When Stevens learned that an Italian company had resurrected plans to build an enormous resort style development in the tiny town of Tusayan, his heart sank. The town is just a couple miles south of the canyon.

Earlier this month, nearly two dozens Tusayan residents signed petitions to stop the development. The petitions would put a referendum on the ballot to overturn zoning changes that would allow the developers to move forward. Backers of the petition list water as their primary concern. County voters rejected a similar plan eleven years ago over the same concerns.

For Larry Stevens and other critics, the questions remain. Where would the developers get the water to support such a huge project? And if they drill wells, could they drain the seeps and springs that feed the Grand Canyon?

“Their concerns are definitely warranted,” says Don Bills, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey. In 2007, he authored what many consider the most comprehensive study of the region’s hydrology to date.

“We’ve found that any kind of ground water development is going to cause eventually a decline in discharge among seeps and springs along the south rim of the Grand Canyon,” Bills says.

That’s because any drilling in the area would tap into the same aquifer that feeds the Grand Canyon. It’s called the Red Wall Mauv acquifer. It’s deep, 3,000 feet down, and very expensive to drill.

Bills says he doesn’t know how much or how fast drilling might affect the aquifer. It could take days to decades. He says wells closer to the rim, like any drilled in Tusayan, could have a faster and larger impact.

The developer, The Stilo Group, isn’t saying where it plans to get its water.

“There are a bunch of different alternatives,” including drilling, says Grady Gammage is a land use lawyer representing the company. “There are areas up there where we believe there is a readily accessible ground water source. There are potential sources of water that can be transported either by pipeline or rail.”

That’s what the Stilo Group planned to do eleven years ago. Back then, the deal involved federal land and required a detailed environmental analysis. The review cautioned against drilling, so the Stilo Group agreed to ship water in via rail. This time round, they’re planning to build on private land. That means they have to meet only Arizona standards, and those are more lax.

“The process they are going through now is the process that anyone who goes through seeking to develop private property in the state of Arizona goes through.” Gammage says. “And that process is not one where you have to figure out all your water solutions way far in advance.

It also means you have the right to any water under your land, no matter the impact on the surrounding environment.

Perhaps no one has more at stake in this controversy than the Havasupai Tribe of Native Americans.

Tim Uqualla is a member of the Havasupai Tribal Council. He grew up playing along the banks of the sparkling blue Havasu Creek. The creek winds through an isolated valley of lush cottonwoods and farmlands off the Grand Canyon. It’s where this tribe of around 750 people has made their home for at least 800 years. All thanks to the water in Havasu Creek, Uqualla says.

“It’s our life,” he says. “It makes everything grow down here in this little tiny spot. If you hike in, you’ll see nothing but rocks, sand and gravel, once you turn a curve, it opens up to all this green.”

The creek gets its water from the same area the Stilo Group might drill. Uqualla’s worried because he says the company hasn’t reached out to the tribe or shared details about their plans. He worries pumping might reduce the flow to Havasu Creek and have a devastating impact.

“I wonder what happened to the Hohokom or the Anasazi,” Uqualla says. “They might have run out of water and they had to move or they just died out. That’s a thought that I don’t want to see happen down here. If our water dried out, where would we go?”

Because the Havasupai have federal standing, they might have the strongest legal case to stop any development that could harm their land. Uqualla said that for now, they are considering their options.