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The Grand Canyon Needs New Pipes

Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Grand Canyon National Park has issued five warnings this year about water shortages due to pipeline breaks. That means so far, it’s actually been a good year for the aging water system that park officials are dying to replace. 

Imagine hiking in the Grand Canyon and seeing a geyser. There are no natural geysers at Grand Canyon. But up to 25 times a year, the pipes break that carry water from the Inner Canyon to the rims.

“The one that happened over the Memorial weekend, the one that was at Pipe Creek, was spewing in the air about 80 feet. It was quite spectacular,” said Tim Jarrell, the Park’s chief of maintenance. “The one that was up on the north Kaibab Trail had a really pretty fan appearance to it, and it was probably spraying 50, 60 feet into the air.”

Jarrell says worrying about the aging infrastructure that supplies water to backpackers and Grand Canyon residents keeps him up nights. And replacing it while he’s in charge is his fondest hope.

“It would be an answer to my prayers and my dreams if we would get the funding to be able to do this while I’m here,” Jarrell said.

Grand Canyon’s eight-inch pipe was installed half a century ago. It’s aluminum, because at the time, helicopters couldn’t handle the weight of heavier metal pipe. And it’s welded into one contiguous piece for the whole 12 and a half miles. That means when a rock falls and breaks it, or the pipe springs a leak, the whole thing gets shuts down.

Park rangers always warn backpackers to carry a means to filter water, so the pipeline breaks aren’t a huge deal for them. And large storage tanks on the North and South rims can supply people living in or visiting those areas, for short periods of time. But with only modest emergency storage capacity, Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon is a little different.

“They don’t do laundry,” Jarrell said. “We change the way that the restrooms are done. We change the way the restaurant operates a little bit when they’re giving out water with their dinners and all that kind of stuff. They have to ask for the water at that time, rather than automatically getting it.”

So far, Jarrell and his staff have been able to jump on pipe breaks and fix them in a matter of days. Each repair costs about $20,000 dollars, and Jarrell likes to say they’re replacing the pipe three feet at a time.

Still, he lives in fear of major or sustained damage: An extended water shortage could shut down the South Rim.

Jarrell says the funding request is in place to install much sturdier steel pipes, in sections that could be isolated for repairs. But that would cost an estimated $120 million dollars, so no one is holding their breath.


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